Undocumented (Book Review)

How Immigration Became Illegal Aviva Chomsky

Chomsky traces the history of the idea of “illegality” in the US, explaining that “we as a society created illegal immigration by making immigration illegal.” Prior to 1965, the media did not generally portray immigration in negative terms. By the 1970s the demonization of immigrants- particularly Mexican and other Latino immigrants had become a hot button issue. How did this happen?

Migration Today

Currently, Mexican and Central American immigrants make up the largest populations of undocumented people in the US. Half of the undocumented population in America enters the country “illegally” (by evading ICE and Border Patrol or by using falsified documents to pass through the border), whether they know this or, as for many of the immigrants, they don’t know that they are breaking law. The other half of the undocumented population entered with inspection (a visa or some sort of Crossing Card) and then overstayed their allotted time in the US.

“People don’t apply for citizenship or don’t obtain proper documents to come here, because the law forbids it… US immigration law is based on a system of quotas and preferences. If you don’t happen to be one of the lucky few who falls into a quota or preference category, there is basically no way to obtain legal permission to immigrate. If you are already in the United States without proper documentation, you will never, ever be allowed to apply for citizenship.”

Undocumented people make up about five percent of the American workforce, almost always doing jobs that Americans themselves would rather not do: agricultural, factory and service jobs.

“Illegality is a way to enforce a dual labor market and keep some labor cheap, in a supposedly postracial era. Illegality uses lack of citizenship- that is, being born in the wrong place- to make workers more exploitable.”

History of Immigration to US

“Europeans, apparently, belonged everywhere. Christians needed to spread their religion to heathens, European governments needed to expand their realms and bestow the benefits of their government to others, and settlers needed to fulfill their pioneering spirit and manifest destiny by applying their will and their capital to new lands and peoples,” Chomksy writes.

Before civil war, only white people could be citizens. With the end of the war, the country sought to give status to African Americans. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, to limit Chinese immigration to America. With less Chinese immigrants, farmers in California in particular relied heavily on migrant farmworkers from Mexico. From 1924–1965 the Mexican-US border was opened up and basically unpoliced as Mexicans came to work in the US.

From 1940-the 1960s there was a special program for migrant workers to come to the US called the Bracero Program, which brought over 4 million workers and was finally ended after civil rights organizing around discriminatory treatment of these guest workers. While there were two major wavevs of deportation (in the ’30s and ’50s) being undocumented as we know it today was not used as a reason for deportation, but rather racial justification was used as a reason for legal discrimination against Mexican and other Latinx workers. However, with the civil rights movement of the 60s, racial discrimination was made illegal and there became the reliance on “legal v. illegal” as a means to discriminate and maintain the status quo.

In 1965, with the end of the Bracero Program, racial quotas for immigration were ended, and instead immigration quotas to US were given to all countries in the world. From 1965 on, new law made it harder and harder to become a “legal” American. In 2001 the USA-PATRIOT Act was passed, making it possible to deport any non-citizen. Chomsky writes that current immigrant policy is legalized discrimination against black and brown people, similar to write Michelle Alexander writes about in the New Jim Crow (read my book review here) pertaining specifically to African American people. By 2011, the overall increase of federal prosecutions of immigration violations had turned it into the top federal crime by 2011. Immigration is a highly racialized crime that the private prison system mightily profits off of and continued to promote with its multi-million dollar lobbying industry.

So why do people make the journey to work and live in the US? Chomsky writes:

“It is not pure coincidence that poor and violent countries in Latin America coexist alongside the over consuming United States. Deliberate US policies, from invasions and occupations to military aid to loans and investments, have created the Latin American politics and economies and the disparities that are now the roots of today’s migrations. Attempts to seal the border only reinforce the very inequalities that contribute to migration.”

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