Just What Is It About Illegal You Don’t Understand?

By Sara CamposJune 10, 2014

Just What Is It About Illegal You Don’t Understand?

Undocumented by Aviva Chomsky

IF YOU LISTEN to debates or talk shows on immigration or log on to any of the myriad blogs on the topic, you are likely to hear the following refrains: My parents came legally; why couldn’t they follow the rules and wait their turn? Just what is it about illegal you don’t understand? Aviva Chomsky’s new book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, attempts to answer those questions, and, as she puts it, “denaturalize illegality” — in other words, to arrive at the conclusion that the way US immigration laws operate is absurd.

Chomsky is a history professor and the coordinator of the Latin American Studies Department at Salem University in Massachusetts. She worked for the United Farm Workers union in the 1970s, self-identifies as an activist, and has written extensively on immigrants, labor, and Latin America. Her last book on immigration was “They Take Away Our Jobs!”: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration (Beacon Press, June 2007). In Undocumented, Chomsky writes about current immigration policy through a historical lens and with an eye toward improving immigrant rights. In a slim volume consisting of eight chapters, Undocumented combines history, immigration law, and journalistic reporting to explore the world the undocumented live in, and how undocumented status came to occupy such a pernicious place. Chomsky concentrates on Mexicans and Central Americans because they constitute approximately three-quarters of the US undocumented population.

Chomsky closely analyzes the structure of labor, economics, and US immigration laws, and the way their interplay in the marketplace results in undocumented status, and argues that illegal status is an invented and convenient concept, a strategy designed to provide cheap labor. She argues that with the abolition of slavery, the United States needed a source of cheap labor. After the Jim Crow era, overt discrimination on the basis of race was challenged and became less acceptable. Over time, immigration status took its place. In the same period, work became redefined as a privilege that people without legal immigration status were barred from performing. Since undocumented people nevertheless work, the legal impairment surrounding their labor renders them vulnerable and exploitable. They therefore take on the lowest and least desirable jobs, and their labor provides handsome profits for various industries such as agriculture, construction, landscaping, and others.

Chomsky likens the paradigm that works against immigrants to those Michelle Alexander identifies in The New Jim Crow (2010),an operational structure that results in the mass incarceration of African-American men. “Although, on the surface, the system is color-blind,” writes Chomsky, “in fact, it targets people of color. But it works better in this supposedly postracial age, because it never uses race directly to discriminate. Instead, it criminalizes people of color then discriminates on the basis of their criminal status.”

Chomsky further argues that these systems are rooted in the hegemony of colonialism and continue on a global scale to the present day, creating what some scholars call “global apartheid.” Global apartheid restricts people born in the poorest nations from traveling to wealthier nations. Chomsky deems it fundamentally unfair and challenges readers to ask important questions. For instance, if US-born citizens believe that the freedom to travel is their birthright, why are poor people from other countries barred from doing so? Why should the accident of birth determine who can travel and who cannot? Why should people whose labors enrich the rest of the populace be barred from participating fully in their communities? Chomsky writes:

It is not OK for a public park, a town, a county, or a state to discriminate regarding who is allowed to enter its space. But it’s OK for a country to do that. It’s not OK to treat people differently based on their religion, race, gender, or many other characteristics. But it’s OK to treat people differently based on where they were born or their nationality (which is generally determined by where a person is born). US immigration laws do just that: discriminate, on the basis of nationality, regarding who is allowed to be where.

The strength of Undocumented is the way Chomsky connects history to the present. She demonstrates that the current migration patterns that now incarcerate and deport millions of people were cemented by US industries over a century ago. Chomsky provides evidence of American recruiters that traveled to the interior of Mexico and invited workers to help expand the railroads and other nascent industries such as mining and agribusiness in the Southwest. The work was often seasonal, and after harvests Mexican laborers went home. As a result, such workers were not seen as immigrants, but as sojourners — temporary workers who were essentially fungible and disposable. They were thus not perceived as immigrants and were exempt from immigration laws, including the 1924 quota law that imposed limitations on who could immigrate to the United States.

Chomsky also focuses on the Bracero Program and the subsequent 1965 immigration law. It was the Bracero Program that concretized the concept of Mexicans as temporary and “illegal” workers in the American psyche. It also established an insatiable appetite in US farmers for a constant supply of cheap labor. Despite the fact that the Bracero Program was regulated, Chomsky notes that it was also manipulated; dual systems of labor — one legal, one illegal — operated side by side. A surplus of workers benefited employers, who could more easily exploit their workers.

In 1965, Congress enacted an immigration law that significantly changed the status quo. Passed during the civil rights movement and hailed as an end to the discriminatory racial and national origin quotas of a bygone era, the 1965 law dismantled quotas and established country caps. Chomsky notes that while the new caps seemed more egalitarian, the law had devastating consequences for Mexicans. The numerical limitations were nowhere near enough to meet labor demands or family considerations. Thus, many Mexicans simply came the way they had always come — without documents — but were now considered “illegal.”

The seasonal, circular migration of Mexicans over many decades that had attracted little national attention suddenly became “a yearly and highly visible violation of American sovereignty by hostile aliens who were increasingly framed as invaders and criminals.”

As laws became more restrictive, this population chose to stay rather than risk crossing the increasingly militarized border. Moreover, with time, border crossings that in years past were treated as minor transgressions became felonies, with sentences reaching 10 and 20 years.

Chomsky examines immigration laws and explains the various ways individuals become undocumented, the way such status is punished, and the way such penalties have changed over time. She includes a look at the way the prison industry has quintupled in size over the last 15 years. Two chapters examine the work world inhabited by undocumented workers and address the labor they perform, how their work became criminalized, and how that criminalization serves the market for cheap goods and services.

Chomsky, in writing about the ways in which current immigration policies affect families and children, notes that the term “anchor baby” is frequently mentioned to imply that “giving birth to a child in the United States gives the parent some special rights or privileges. It doesn’t.” She then demonstrates the numerous ways in which families are torn apart by deportation. She relates the case of an undocumented Guatemalan woman arrested during a chicken plant raid in Missouri who lost custody of her six-month-old son. A judge terminated her parental rights and ruled that “smuggling herself into a country illegally and committing crimes in this country is not a lifestyle that can provide any stability for a child.” Her infant was subsequently adopted.

The book ends with a chapter on solutions. This section is the weakest part of the book, in which Chomsky does not offer much of practical or immediate value. She is not enamored of Comprehensive Immigration Reform legislation currently in Congress. This should not come as a surprise: the proposed law is predicated on policies that continue to serve industry desires for cheap labor. It also heightens enforcement, both at the border and in the interior of the country. Chomsky asks whether we can “abandon enforcement.” She argues that it has not only failed to decrease illegal crossings, but in recent decades it has also resulted in an escalation of organized crime and violence. She writes:

The huge growth in organized crime, drug smuggling, drug and smuggling cartels, kidnappings, and violent and unnecessary death at the border is the result of misguided policies attempting to impose control. […] Attempts to seal the border only reinforce the very inequalities that contribute to migration.

The question remains, however. If Comprehensive Immigration Reform is not the answer, what is the alternative, especially when the lives of close to 11 million people continue to be devastated by the deportations tearing apart their families and communities?

Chomsky believes that since “illegal immigration” is a manufactured problem, it could be solved with the stroke of a pen. While grounded in history and moral suasion, such a stance has little political reality, especially with a Congress as polarized as our current body of legislators.

Early commentators of Undocumented stated that the book would be relevant to those who do not share Chomsky’s position as well as those who do. Indeed, the book provides arguments for both sides of the table. Although Chomsky is an immigrant rights activist,the book offers much fodder for those who oppose immigration and wish to derail proposed immigration legislation. They need only point to data following previous legalization attempts, and show, for instance, the way undocumented populations ballooned after the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Yet, providing arguments for or against current reform legislation is not necessarily the point. Only when we understand the history and economics of illegality can we begin to entertain different kinds of solutions, ones that focus on human rights rather than profits. While the book is accessible, it is also dense and could have benefited from more examples, historical and current, to fully illustrate points. Nevertheless, Undocumented adds smart, new, and provocative scholarship to the immigration debate


Sara Campos is a writer, lawyer, and immigration consultant.

LARB Contributor

Sara Campos is a writer, lawyer, and currently a program officer at the Grove Foundation. After almost two decades of advocacy on behalf of immigrants and refugees, she obtained an MFA in creative writing from Mills College and has published fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in a number of publications including the San Francisco Chronicle and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. She has also received fellowships from Hedgebrook, Mesa, Refuge, Letras Latinas, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She is a recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!