Rethinking Immigration

We don’t understand “illegal”. We just think we do.

My favorite books are the ones that take the stuff everybody knows and ask “Really?”.

David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years was like that. At a party in Westminster Abbey, an activist lawyer says to Graeber, “Surely one has to pay one’s debts!” as if nothing could be more obvious, no matter how liberal you are. His entire book is a challenge to that certainty: Really? What is debt? Where does it come from? He finds that the history of debt is all tangled up with slavery, and that even today debt is often an expression of power relationships that we would challenge in any other setting.

Aviva Chomsky’s* Undocumented is another “really?” book. What everybody knows about immigration is that undocumented Hispanic immigrants have broken the law, and there have to be consequences for that. “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” demand the protest signs. We have to secure our borders, and you can’t just let people walk into the United States.

Really? Chomsky writes: “The purpose of this book is to denaturalize illegality.” In other words, we don’t really understand “illegal immigrant”; we just think we do. Realizing how strange an idea it is, and the historical freight it carries, is a step forward.

So before we even start imagining our future immigration policy, we have some things to unlearn about the past.

1. For the longest time, we did just let people walk into the United States. Whether they became citizens or not depended on their race. If you’re white and your family has been in the U.S. for several generations, you probably think they came “the right way”, through some sort of legal process comparable to our current immigration procedures. That’s not true. Back in the 1840s, my German ancestors didn’t get visas or put their names on the waiting list for the next year’s German immigrant quota. They just got on a boat and came.

Before the Civil War, it was taken for granted that white people who turned up on our doorstep would become citizens and non-whites wouldn’t. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalization to “free white aliens” of “good character”. White people could just show up, and if they lived here for two years (later extended to five) without incident, they could apply to any local court for citizenship.

Of course the rules were different for blacks, who were mostly slaves in the South, and weren’t wanted as citizens in many northern states. Indiana’s constitution of 1851 said “No Negro or Mulatto shall come into, or settle in, the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.” In the West, the cheap labor was Chinese; and while they weren’t exactly slaves, they were never going to become Americans either.

The 14th Amendment changed all that, making any baby born in the United States a citizen (except for Indians). So suddenly it was important who was allowed across the border. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 kept out the Chinese, and the Immigration Act of 1917 extended the ban to all Asians. The early 20th-century flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe — Jews! Catholics! anarchists! — was throttled in 1921 by restricting annual immigration from any country to 3% (later 2%) of the number of Americans who claimed that ancestry on the 1910 (later 1890) census.

So (except for Asians) national origin replaced race as the decisive factor. But the national origin of American blacks was defined in such a way that the annual immigration quota from all of non-Egyptian Africa was only 1,100.

That law was the baseline for refusing entry to Holocaust survivors after World War II: Nothing against you personally, but (even though you’re Jewish) we classify you as Czech, and the quota is low because there weren’t many Czech-Americans in 1890.

2. Mexican immigration has always been a special case. Until 1965, the law didn’t consider Mexicans who crossed the border to be immigrants at all. They were migrant workers who would someday return to Mexico. So there was no reason not to let them in, no reason not to deport them whenever the economy went south, and no clear path to citizenship for the ones who stayed. 

By 1965 our openly racist immigration laws had become an embarrassment, so we changed them. For the first time, Mexicans were considered immigrants, and seasonally wandering back and forth across the border became illegal. The “illegal Mexican immigrant” was born — not because a flood of law-breaking Mexicans surged over the border, but because we re-classified the traditional migration pattern of many Mexican workers.

Chomsky points out that some of the stereotypes about fence-jumping Mexicans are wrong.

  • The easier way to cross the border is to get a tourist visa, fly in, and forget to leave. About half of our undocumented residents got here that way. They tend to be the wealthier ones. But if the incentives are high enough, just building a wall isn’t going to stop people from coming.
  • A lot of undocumented immigrants were recruited to come here by middlemen working for American employers. Some from more remote areas didn’t even know they were breaking our rules.
  • Free-trade agreements have flooded Mexico with cheap American corn, making many small-scale Mexican farms unsustainable. A set of rules that allows us to keep out the Mexican farmers made destitute by our exports isn’t really fair.

3. Our current policy maintains a two-tier labor market that has its roots in slavery. Throughout our history, America has had two classes of workers; one that had a chance to move up and one that didn’t. Chomsky writes:

From the eighteenth and, especially, the nineteenth centuries on , the United States benefited from its place in the global industrial economy, and white people in the United States benefited from their place in the racial order. A dual labor market developed in which some workers began to become upwardly mobile and enjoy the benefits of industrial society, while others were legally and structurally stuck at the bottom.

The Northeast mechanized, and lower-tier work that was hard to mechanize (mostly in fields or mines) shifted to the South (where it was done by blacks, first as slaves and then as victims of Jim Crow) or the West (where Chinese and then Mexicans did it).

The justification for separating the two tiers of workers has shifted with time. Originally the separating criterion was race, then partly race and partly national origin. Now it’s legal status. In spite of what our laws say, our economy still creates and depends on millions of sub-minimum-wage jobs where first-tier standards of job safety and protection against abuse don’t apply. They aren’t limited to the South and West any more, they’re everywhere. But they’re no longer done by blacks or Chinese or even Mexicans (per se); they’re done by illegals.

From Chomsky’s point of view, the point of our laws about “illegal immigrants” isn’t to get rid of these people or even to keep more from coming; it’s to make their labor more exploitable. Being “illegal”, they can’t demand their rights or complain about their mistreatment.**

4. So the place to start isn’t “What are we going to do about these people?”. It’s “What are we going to do about these jobs?”

Our fundamental argument about the “illegals” bounces between two poles, neither of which is quite right.

  • They steal American jobs.
  • They do necessary jobs that Americans won’t do.

The truth is that the terms offered to undocumented workers — wages, working conditions, etc. — would be unacceptable (and often even illegal) for American workers. If the undocumented workers weren’t there (a situation dramatized in the movie A Day Without a Mexican, and played out in real life in Georgia, until the old ways re-asserted themselves), those jobs — and the economy based on them — would have to change.

Some of those jobs would go away. If, say, you could only hire documented American residents to be your live-in nanny — even if you could hire the same undocumented woman suddenly documented, protected by American laws, and open to a wider range of employment opportunities — you might decide a day-care center was a better option. Maybe farmers would conclude that growing certain labor-intensive crops in the U.S. isn’t economical (or is economical only in small quantities for foodies willing to pay high prices), so we would import more Mexican vegetables and fewer Mexican workers. Those farmers would grow something else, buy more machinery, and probably make less money; the market value of their land would go down accordingly. Some loans collateralized by that land would go underwater, and some banks might fail.

Others jobs would upgrade, and the products based on them would become more expensive.*** You might have to pay more at restaurants, or more to get someone to clean your house. But the wages paid for those upgraded jobs would increase demand for the kinds of things American workers buy, creating new jobs that might or might not balance the ones that went away.

In short, it’s not just a question of “kick them out” or “secure the border” or even “crack down on the employers”. The whole economy would change if we had a one-tier system of labor rather than the two-tier system we’ve had for our entire history. Until we’re ready to face that change, all our debates about “illegals” will go round in circles. Because if you don’t want the people, but you do want their labor, you’ve got a problem.

* Yes, she is related to Noam. He’s her Dad.

** There’s an obvious parallel to prison labor, whose workers are similarly limited and unprotected because of their legal status. Prison labor is also largely non-white, as Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow.

*** Though maybe not by as much as you think. William Finnegan writes in The New Yorker: “But in Denmark McDonald’s workers over the age of eighteen earn more than twenty dollars an hour—they are also unionized—and the price of a Big Mac is only thirty-five cents more than it is in the United States.”

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  • Don Clemens  On November 17, 2014 at 10:21 am

    I’ll be headed down to my local library to check this book out!

  • Gina  On November 17, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Something in the narrative that needs to be addressed, I believe, is the effect of immigration on our country as a whole and on individuals. The Republican narrative states that “floods of illegal immigrants swarming across our border” is a bad thing, a terrible terrible thing. That’s a given, unquestioned in the conservative mind, so they don’t even need to talk about why it’s bad or how bad it is or who is harmed by it in what ways. It’s kind of a wink-wink thing, we all “know” why it’s bad. And when forced to talk about why it’s bad, they refer to things like taking American jobs, straining our resources, being rewarded for breaking the law, and getting free goodies from the American government. These things are mostly false, so I think the other side’s narrative should address that and talk about the REAL effects.

    It irritates me that conservatives are very concerned about there being a shortage of American jobs and other resources, which we can’t afford to waste on immigrants, but not concerned at all about having enough jobs and resources for all the extra babies born if we ban abortion.

    • Anonymous  On January 5, 2015 at 12:37 am

      Those who want to argue against immigration from Mexico need, IMO, only point at Mexico. Do you want that? Well, no, we (liberals and conservatives both) don’t. We don’t want the U.S. to become Mexico. The illegal immigrants don’t want the U.S. to become Mexico. Nobody wants that.

      It’s a basic immigrant problem: you don’t move somewhere because you want it to be like the place you left (if you wanted “home” you wouldn’t emigrate, you’d just stay put!), you move somewhere because you want the economic opportunities, freedoms, culture, climate, or landscape of your destination. And yet… you’ll vote for your destination to become like your home, you’ll want to be in a familiar community, you’ll maintain your house and your land as you would in your home region. This is why, for instance, Phoenix is very much like a Midwestern suburb writ large, and also very much like Mexican corruption married to prosperity. We end up with the worst of both worlds, because none of the immigrant communities really wants to embrace the new place, they all want to bring their favorite bits of home with them, without realizing that those favorite bits of home are why they left.

      The southwest should neither become Mexico nor become Iowa. Only the interests of the Mexicans get considered under the heading “Immigration”, though. That is a big part of the problem. Basically, it’s not about immigration, it’s about creating a culture that works, wherever you are. Immigration isn’t bad or good, but immigrants need to leave home behind no matter where they come from…

  • Jeff R.  On November 17, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Carl Rogers, of client-centered therapy note, talked about congruence. Mental health is about living a life of congruence, wherein a healthy person is “whole.” On the other hand, Scott Peck wrote a book “People of the Lie,” his exploration of evil. These “People” deal with profound incongruity through delusion and/or lies. Perhaps America, and its Founding Fathers, is a story of wrestling with major incongruities — with slavery perhaps one of the earliest and biggest. It is to the credit of those who were able to acknowledge (e.g., Patrick Henry) the hypocrisy of coexistence of freedom and slavery even though they continued to own human beings. Perhaps the Democratic ‘story’ is one of openly acknowledging and wrestling with these incongruities on a path to congruence or wholeness. As suggested by this posting on immigration, another path via story is one of denial of the incongruity itself.

    • weeklysift  On November 17, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      I’m struck by how easily this can be recast in Christian terms: We were born into a society already committed to evil, and we are redeeming it, bit by bit.

      • Jeff R.  On November 17, 2014 at 5:58 pm

        I’d liken it to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm shift. We grew up with stories often idealizing the Founding Fathers. Yet now, we grapple with the consequences of their imperfections. It’s an interesting question if it’s a “bit by bit” or a discontinuous revolutionary change. What was women’s suffrage —
        “bit by bit” or revolutionary? I remember Elliot Spitzer used the phrase, “ossification of big business,” as a way of describing the function of the Republican’s policies/story. This is really about a motivation of exclusion — of preserving or reserving wealth for the few. Perhaps the Democratic story is one motivated by inclusion, of different groups being able to join in terms of the vote, economic gains, etc. Perhaps this ends with ALL Americans afforded equal opportunity. This does not translate into a nation of ‘moochers’ but rather all Americans starting at the same starting line with the right equipment — like running an Olympic track race. A story of inclusion translates into fairness — the best and most deserving performers win — and also the greatest return in terms of wealth to the community as a whole.

  • Bolling Lowrey  On November 17, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    However, it is a fact that unionized Meat Cutters in the Midwest in the 1990s made at least 1/3 again as much in hourly wages as “undocumented” workers make today for the same work. But, as pointed out, the undocumented cannot complain. I worked for a temp agency 10 yrs. ago where one job was to “verify” the “incorrect” social security numbers submitted during the year to a fast food outlet in North Carolina. The workers, once a year, were notified that the numbers on the cards they had given on their applications were not “accurate”.
    Once a year the gov’t sent out this listing to the Fast Food Company. Generally the workers left (or had left) before the question was asked. But the point is, they were only checked once a year. ANY social security card was “accepted” at face value even though it would be easy to check them swiftly if the gov’t would require that, which they don’t because the employers block any change of this sort. Fake social security cards represent a thriving business. The wages paid go down with the “undocumented”, but the profits go UP for the employers. US citizens Would Certainly qualify for the jobs, but often the jobs are “sourced” to undocumented workers because they are cheaper and have no “background checks” that turn up unsavory information. Of course the undocumented want to work here, but it is false to maintain that “no Americans” would take the jobs. Canada has a robust job market …. for Canadians … they are very careful about undocumented folks applying.

  • Nancy Banks  On November 17, 2014 at 9:37 pm

    The problem is that it is so easy for the right wings to spread paranoid about immigrants. Just got two emails from my brother in SC about how illegal immigrants are costing us billions of dollars or sneaking in – now even through Canada. And we on the left- are simply silent to these crazy ideas that spread like wild fire.

  • Harrison  On November 18, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    Do you have any suggestions for more “Really?” reading. I have a lot of things that I take for granted without realizing it until it’s pointed out to me. I love to expose myself to more scholarly writing which challenges those assumptions.

    • weeklysift  On November 20, 2014 at 8:11 am

      One is a book I reviewed back in March, Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon. We all know that the Civil War ended slavery, or at least the 13th Amendment did. Blackmon shows how thousands of blacks continued to be enslaved until World War II.

      I’ve tried to get the “really?” effect into some of my own writing. Here on this blog, look at “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party”, which includes the claim that the South won the Civil War, and (on my religious blog) “Who Owns the World?”, which challenges the assumptions behind the institution of property.

    • weeklysift  On November 20, 2014 at 8:13 am

      Anybody have any other suggestions?

      • Michael Cleaves  On November 23, 2014 at 7:30 am

        Not really as politically charged, but I found Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age to be a very interesting analysis of what secularization really means (and why religion is still so powerful in an ostensibly secular society). On the political side, Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty is a bit repetitive, but it has a great analysis of why there’s such a demographic overlap between people who tend to be homophobic and people who think “borders must be secured!!!”

      • weeklysift  On November 23, 2014 at 9:49 am

        I agree. I reviewed Taylor’s book (along with James Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief, another “really?” candidate) for UU World.

      • Michael Cleaves  On November 23, 2014 at 8:00 pm

        Hey, I’m UU also! I had no idea. I just came to this blog because your post was referenced on Washington Monthly. By the way – really great stuff here. Thank you!

  • Anonymous  On January 5, 2015 at 12:10 am

    “3. Our current policy maintains a two-tier labor market that has its roots in slavery.”

    That is a point very often forgotten! And it is deeply tied to ‘4. So the place to start isn’t “What are we going to do about these people?”. It’s “What are we going to do about these jobs?”’

    Anyone who embraces the, “They do necessary jobs that Americans won’t do,” viewpoint (most liberals) is absolutely committed to a two-tier labor market (which is, well, antithetical to liberalism). That’s the only framework under which immigrants will do jobs that Americans won’t.

    This has an interesting consequence. Embracing illegal immigrants as full American citizens in every way is probably the best solution, from either Democrat or Republican viewpoints, to the illegal immigration problem. In doing so, you:
    1) eliminate the two-tier system, which any liberal must agree is good;
    2) eliminate the job pool for illegal immigrants, which any conservative must agree is good (that job pool is dependent on the two-tier system; it relies on the ability to treat immigrant workers worse than American citizens).
    Everybody wins! We treat people equally and eliminate the incentives for illegal immigration!

    However, proponents of the status quo are in the third category: People who want a two-tier system that relies on illegal workers. This third category is not aligned with either American liberalism (because it relies on a two-tier system) nor with American conservation (because it relies on illegal workers). It is, basically, a libertarian position (we don’t care who does the job, what their future prospects might be, how they got here, or what the law says: we just want to get the job done cheaply). That’s the enemy. Unfortunately, many liberals and conservatives appear to be closet libertarians on this issue. They both ignore the inherent ideological problems with the status quo. You have Democrats arguing for a two-tier system and Republicans arguing for economic growth based on illegal immigrants. Both can sell their cases reasonably well to their bases by highlighting the details that appeal to liberal or conservative viewpoints and ignoring those in conflict, but both fundamentally betray the interests they claim to represent.


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