Skip to content Skip to footer

“Illegal Immigration” Is a Policy Used to Exclude and Exploit

(Image: Beacon Press)

In a remarkably detailed book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, Professor Aviva Chomsky explores how prejudice and the exploitation of inexpensive labor has increasingly shaped immigration policy. You can read about her sobering findings by making a minimum contribution to Truthout and receiving the book. Click here.

The following is an excerpt from chapter eight of Undocumented, “Solutions.”

In order to talk about solutions, we have to understand the real roots and nature of the problem. Many politicians and others who see immigration control as an issue of security and sovereignty imagine that hordes of poor people of color are seeking to appropriate the resources of this land that we now call the United States. This formulation of the problem is a precise reversal of the actual European settlement of the country, from the perspective of the Native Americans.

It is also a mirror image of the United States’ relationship with the countries – primarily Mexico, Central America, and other Latin American countries – from which the undocumented come. In every case, the products and profits accumulated in the sending countries are a major source of the abundance and affluence in the United States. A quick review of any supermarket or clothing or electronics store reveals the Third World and often Latin American origins of many of the products we consume. More invisible are the mines, oil wells, multinationals, and profits behind the products. But the flow of resources is undeniable.

The history that is drummed into the heads of US schoolchildren insists that the “country of immigrants” was founded and built by Europeans. The invisible underside of this narrative is the imperial narrative of conquest and dispossession that continued until the end of the nineteenth century and upon which the new “country of [white] immigrants” was built. The country-of-immigrants narrative is very much a narrative of race. Immigrants were conceived as white Europeans (the only people allowed to naturalize), and their presence and comfort depended upon the labor of people who were legally excluded from the polity. Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, Mexicans, like African Americans prior to 1868, were accepted as a necessary evil for their labor and considered unthreatening to the white nature of the country that viewed them as exploitable workers rather than as potential citizens. The history of reliance on Mexican labor coupled with the refusal to grant rights to Mexican workers is a long one indeed.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase (La Mesilla Purchase of 1853) offered US citizenship to Mexican citizens resident in the territories newly taken. By specifying “Mexican citizens,” the laws excluded the Native American population resident in the area. And by offering citizenship to Mexicans at a time when citizenship was restricted to whites, the laws implied that Mexicans would be considered white. In the midcentury, then, “it was possible . . . to be both white and Mexican in the United States.” However, as Katherine Benton-Cohn explains in her detailed study of four Arizona border towns, Mexican nationality became racialized as nonwhite during the nineteenth century through work. Where Mexicans were workers, rather than landholders, they came to be legally defined as racially Mexican and disqualified from citizenship.

“Where Mexicans owned ranches and farms, racial categories were blurry and unimportant. But in the industrial copper-mining town of Bisbee, Mexican workers were segregated economically by their lower pay (‘Mexican wage’) and geographically by new town-planning experiments. To most non-Mexican residents of Bisbee, Mexicans were peon workers or potential public charges, not neighbors or business partners, not coworkers or co-worshipers, and certainly not potential marriage partners.” In these areas, where Mexicans became defined as racially Mexican through their laboring status, ” ‘American’ increasingly equaled ‘white,’ and so ‘Mexican’ came to mean the opposite of both.”

Nicolas De Genova notes the “longstanding equation of Mexican migration with a presumably temporary, disposable (finally, deportable) labor migration predominated by men (who were predominantly single or left wives and children behind).” The 1911 Dillingham US Immigration Commission argued that “while [Mexicans] are not easily assimilated, this is of no very great importance as long as most of them return to their native land. In the case of the Mexican, he is less desirable as a citizen than as a laborer.” “One way or the other, then,” De Genova concludes, “US policy would ensure that ‘most of them’ proved to be sojourners.”

The laws that restricted citizenship to whites did not restrict the right to work to whites. On the contrary, Congress has repeatedly created new categories of nonwhite people who were specifically cast as workers. (Slave laborers comprised the original worker-but-not-potential-citizen category.) Deportability became a crucial factor in cementing the association between Mexican-ness as a race and legal status as a temporary worker.

The threat of deportation worked to institutionalize the fragile character of Mexicans’ claims to rights in the land where they came, invited, to work. It could be used to accommodate the changing needs of employers, and it could also be used to discourage union organizing or other forms of social protest. Until the 1960s, racial justifications seemed sufficient for legal discrimination against Mexicans.

Making Immigration Illegal

After the 1960s, when race was finally rejected as a rationale for excluding people from access to public spaces, citizenship or entry into the United States, new forms of legal and legalized exclusion took its place. The last two major immigration reforms, in 1965 and 1986, turned Mexican migrant workers into “illegal” workers and used that legal status to justify discrimination. They also, paradoxically, helped to greatly increase both the immigrant and the undocumented population.

The 1965 law is generally seen as a civil rights triumph. One typical account explains that it “ended discrimination” and “represented a significant watershed in US immigration history and particularly in its explicit reversal of decades of systematically exclusive and restrictive immigration policies.” Immigration scholars agree that the climate of the civil rights movement of the 1960s set the context for the 1965 immigration reform.

Despite this generous interpretation, the 1965 law was actually “distinctly and unequivocally restrictive” when it came to Mexican migrants. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were crossing the border as braceros or alongside the braceros each year. Then the Bracero Program was ended and Mexican immigration was suddenly capped. By 1976, a cap of twenty thousand immigrant visas a year was enforced. 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.”

If the new restrictions were intended to lower migration from Latin America, they failed miserably. Instead, all types of immigration from Latin America rose after 1965: temporary and permanent, legal and illegal. Legal immigration from Latin America grew from about 450,000 between 1950 and 1960 to over 4 million between 1990 and 2000, while the number of undocumented Latin Americans living long-term in the United States grew from almost none in 1965 to close to 10 million in the first decade of the new century.

Further “unintended consequences” flowed from the greatly increased border enforcement of the 1990s and 2000s. As border crossing became more difficult, more dangerous, and more expensive, seasonal migrants began to change their patterns and stay on in the United States, sometimes bringing their families as well. The undocumented population grew rapidly in those decades, not because more immigrants were arriving, but because fewer were leaving. “It was thus a sharp decline in the outflow of undocumented migrants, not an increase in the inflow of undocumented migrants, that was responsible for the acceleration of undocumented population growth during the 1990s and early 2000s, and this decline in return migration was to a great extent a product of US enforcement efforts.”

Starting in 1990, a series of laws made life even more difficult for noncitizens, including green-card holders (legal permanent residents). Family reunification privileges favored citizens over legal permanent residents. In 1996, legal permanent residents were barred from receiving most social services, while the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act made noncitizens deportable for a wide range of crimes, even if they had been committed in a distant past. Then, in 2001, the USA-PATRIOT Act made deportation and arrest possible for virtually any noncitizen, based only upon the US Attorney General’s decision.

Excerpted from Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, by Aviva Chomsky © 2014. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Beacon Press. All rights reserved.

Full footnotes to the above excerpt can be found in Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal.

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.