Tag Archives: story of america

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.”