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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

How Immigration Became Illegal

from the Oct. 6, 2021 Bulletin

immigration and border issues

Immigrant rights activist and teacher Aviva Chomsky has been helping us understand how immigration, labor organizing, and environmental issues all intertwine together in our contemporary global economy. Her 2014 book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, explores the ever-shifting nature of status in the United States. They Take Our Jobs!: And 20 Other Myths about Immigration, an earlier book, offers organizers an indispensable tool. Her most recent work: Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration.


Mainstream news reports often use the terms “undocumented” and “illegal” interchangeably. Do these terms mean the same thing?

Avi Chomsky: There’s no such thing as an illegal person. A person can commit an illegal act, but we don’t call people who have stolen money or beaten up their wives “illegals.” It’s a term invented to criminalize those who have done nothing more than cross a geographical line.


The correct description: undocumented or unauthorized. And status can be in flux for each individual. Half the undocumented population has entered the United States legally, but then, in the most typical case, overstayed a visa. Others entered the country without inspection. Conversely, someone undocumented can gain status, for example, by being granted asylum.


The US population today consists largely of the descendants of people who came from somewhere else. Who had the freedom to come?


The US was conceived — and born and grew — as a white settler state and always controlled and curtailed the movement of people of color. Native peoples already here were forcibly moved and removed to make room for Europeans. And Africans were moved across the world against their will.


Citizenship rules reflect this design. The first Naturalization Act of 1790 specified that only “free White persons …of good character” could become citizens through naturalization. In fact, the US government actively recruited immigrants from Europe, offering them jobs as incentives.


In 1870, after the Civil War, lawmakers amended the Naturalization Act to include people of African descent newly emancipated from slavery, and the 14th Amendment gave citizenship to all those born in the US.


With that amendment, people of African descent had citizenship and its rights, at least by the letter of the law. What about other non-white immigrants already in the US?


Remember that Africans were not “immigrants” since they were transported to the US to be sold as commodities. The Nationality Act, after the 1870 amendment, still excluded Mexicans and Chinese, the other two largest non-white groups in the United States.

What about those not yet in the US, but wanting to come?


In 1882, the Exclusion Acts simply forbid the Chinese to enter, the first time that immigration into the US by any nationality became illegal. Mexicans were not excluded. But without the right to become citizens, they were categorized as temporary seasonal workers, free to enter, but not to stay, and always deportable.


Another step toward making immigration illegal came with the quota system introduced in 1924.

This Immigration Act completely excluded most of the world and even restricted Europeans. But people in the Western hemisphere — meaning mostly Mexican migrants — still could move freely back and forth, though still considered seasonal workers, not potential citizens.

In 1965, another reform allegedly meant to be more fair to non-Europeans gave every country a quota of 20,000 migrants. This still privileged whites because European countries have always been smaller in size than large nations like Brazil and India with significant non-white populations. That 20,000 amounted to a ridiculously low number for México, since about 400,000 Mexican migrants had been coming into the US every year, some through the Bracero program eliminated at the end of 1964 and some on their own.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the invention of the “Latino threat” narrative. California has repeatedly been the launching pad for anti-immigrant sentiment and policy. In in the late ’70s, the passage of the California Proposition 13 tax limit left the state budget busted and services cut. Californians got angry. Immigrants, mostly from México, were blamed for the worsened situation for whites. That’s the myth we’re still stuck on today.

Do you see a path toward a just immigration system?

A just system would give everyone freedom of movement, just as capital and corporations have freedom of movement. Let workers go to where they can find jobs. Make them good jobs. Raise wages. A pathway? That’s going to take a lot more organizing to make happen.