Is Dora the Explorer an illegal immigrant?

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In her police mug shot, the doe-eyed cartoon heroine with the bowl haircut has a black eye, battered lip and bloody nose.

Dora the Explorer's alleged crime? "Illegal Border Crossing Resisting Arrest."

The doctored picture, one of several circulating widely in the aftermath of Arizona's controversial new immigration law, may seem harmless, ridiculous or even tasteless.

But experts say the pictures and the rhetoric surrounding them online, in newspapers and at public rallies, reveal some Americans' attitudes about race, immigrants and where some of immigration reform debate may be headed.

"Dora is kind of like a blank screen onto which people can project their thoughts and feelings about Latinos," said Erynn Masi de Casanova, a sociology professor at the University of Cincinnati. "They feel like they can say negative things because she's only a cartoon character."

The depictions, whether through irony or protest, are being used by those who oppose and support Arizona's law. On one hand she's a likable symbol who many can relate to, and at the same time, perceived as an outsider who doesn't belong anywhere.

It's not the first time a children's character has been dragged into a serious debate.

In the late 1990s, Tinky Winky the Teletubby, a purple children's TV character with a triangle antenna – was called out by Christian leaders for being gay. Sesame Street roommates Bert and Ernie are often involved in statements on same-sex marriage.

Both shows' producers say the characters aren't gay.

In Dora's case, especially because her image is so widely available, she's an easy target as discussion ramps up on how lawmakers should address the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

For about a decade, the pint-sized Latina character has taught millions of children the English alphabet, colors and Spanish phrases on a Nickelodeon TV show and through a global empire. Her smiling cherub face is plastered on everything from backpacks to T-shirts to fruit snacks.

But since the passage of the Arizona law – which requires authorities to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally – Dora's life and immigration status have been scrutinized and mocked.

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