When I came across this photo, I was struck by the callousness it conveyed, as well as the arrogance of the idea that whites get to determine the connotation of words that are insulting at best and racist at worst.
First, white folks don't get to determine what is racist or isn't, nor do we get to determine what offends other races, ethnic groups, or cultures because we are the ones who created the offensive words or phrases in the first place. No equivalent racial slur used by minorities toward whites comes close to the worst of the slurs used toward minorities. It's impossible for whites to know the kind of anguish that minorities feel when hateful words and phrases are flung at them. That's why I defer to minorities on whether or not words are racial epithets. It's true that some within a minority group may refer to one another with racial slurs, but I would offer that the tone and context are different. However, that doesn't really matter to me. My own friends who belong to minority groups are deeply offended by slurs as are, I assume, most members of these groups.
For example, when Sarah Palin used code words to describe Pres. Obama as "uppity," people were rightly angry. When she said he needed to stop "shuckin' & jivin'," again there were those who called her out for it. Of course, her critics were accused of playing the race card. Maybe she didn't know how offensive her words were to African Americans, but her possible naïveté doesn't change the fact the words were racist. Those words, which are rooted in the slave trade, were used with derision by whites. So let's say she was ignorant of the origin of the insults, that still doesn't make them less offensive.
The same truth applies to "illegal alien." It is offensive for a number of reasons. It is almost exclusively applied to Mexicans who come across the border with or without permission. I don't know about your region of the country, but in New Mexico, it is code for wetback, a hateful term generously applied to most Latinos. In our history the term "illegal alien" has been used to refer to any group we deem to be lesser than we are and, thus, dehumanize them. In recent history it is almost exclusively applied to Latin Americans.
The fact is a majority of Latinos who cross the border do have work visas, but the visas expire while they're here, and for whatever reason, they do not get them renewed. I suspect they fear being denied a new visa, so they don't apply again. They are breaking immigration law, but it doesn't make the people themselves " illegal." No one in this country, regardless of the crime, is labeled an "illegal." In fact, if undocumented immigrants are caught, they appear in civil court, not criminal court, and judges hearing immigration cases can and often do grant work visas to people who appear in their courts.
The word "alien" implies people are strange, or worse, inhuman. While the Latinos crossing the border may be "foreign" to U.S soil, their ancestors were on this continent long before white Europeans. "Alien" has had a negative connotation, since at least the passage of the "Alien and Sedition Acts." Immigrants from Latin America aren’t strange or foreign, nor is their language. When I was in school, Spanish was taught in grades 1-12, so hearing Spanish being spoken isn't foreign or alien to me nor does it offend me. I'm not saying the history in NM between Anglos & Latinos has been without rancor or that we don't have our fair share of bigots, but I'm proud of the way we embrace other races, ethnic groups, and cultures. An example of our progress is our willingness to shelter the refugees from Central America.
When the Supreme Court struck down Arizona's " papers, please" law, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, "'removal of an unauthorized migrant is a civil matter where even if the person is out of status, federal officials have wide discretion to determine whether deportation makes sense. For example, if an unauthorized person is trying to support his family by working or has "'children born in the United States, long ties to the community, or a record of distinguished military service,'" officials may let him stay. Also, if individuals or their families might be politically persecuted or harmed upon return to their country of origin, they may also remain in the United States." The court, which is extremely conservative, did not use the term “illegal alien" in their opinions except when referring to specific passages in the AZ law.
I'm not the word police, nor am I a censor; I am an educator. My goal here is to enlighten those who are quick to use offensive labels for those different from us. White-American verdicts on the connotations of ethnic monikers are irrelevant given the positions and circumstances from which the labeling arises. So whether the verdicts originate from the ignorance of white privilege or the hatred spawned by a diseased soul, the meaning remains the same to the subject.
*A shout out to my extraordinary grandson @roach_god for his help and collaboration.