An increasingly popular meme in my particular slice of California, this grafitto can frequently be seen scrawled in bathrooms, bus stops, and other common forums for anonymous Sharpie-based political dissent. It's frequently written as a bilingual message, in both English and Spanish on the same wall.
¡Ningun Ser Humano Es Ilegal!
Even before I first saw a translation, its meaning was evident to me. I'd never given thought to the meaning of the phrase "illegal alien" before, but how much sense does it really make? It isn't the alien's existence that's illegal -- it's the act of unlawfully crossing national borders, which he or she has committed.
By nouning people, we dehumanize them: a felon, an addict, a transient. "No one is illegal" is a succinct but memorable protest against the crime of nouning those who would come to our countries to avail themselves of opportunities we take for granted.
Last week I was walking through one of the less savoury parts of Brussels, Belgium. In one alley, an entire wall had been covered with a hodge-podge of symbols, signs, pictures, symbols and slogans spraypainted in half a dozen languages. And there, in the center of them all, I saw a phrase that took my breath away:
NIEMAND IS ILLEGAAL
I don't know Flemish, but the meaning was clear as day to me. I'd travelled 6,000 miles across nine time zones, only to find a little slice of home (albeit localized).
Upon my return, I grew curious. How long has this meme been around? How does it spread so fast? How many language barriers has it transcended? So I did a little research.
Turns out that the "Kein ist Mensch illegal" (sic) idea was introduced to the world in 1997 at Documenta X, a modern art exhibition. The phrase was taken under wing by a number of loosely affiliated immigrant-rights organizations whose members advance their cause though civil disobedience, letter writing and "artistic intervention" in the affairs of governments worldwide.
Circa 2003, one of these organizations, based in Australia, actually adopted "No One Is Illegal" as its moniker. It seems to have since disbanded, or merged with a larger group known only as "Disobedience." You can find information about their actions at:
The meme's creators have stopped pushing it, but that hasn't stopped it from propagating. I've now seen it with my own eyes in four languages on two continents (I saw it written in French in the south of Belgium, covering up a sticker calling for Wallonian secession.) "No one is illegal" is a powerful message for a world whose people show an increasing willingness to regard those who are less fortunate than they, as fundamentally less human.