The United States Was Welcoming to White European Immigrants, But Not to Peoples of Color

Aviva Chomsky. (Photo: Beacon Press)Aviva Chomsky. (Photo: Beacon Press)In a profoundly insightful book that explores the history of unfair US immigration policy, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, Aviva Chomsky explains how prejudice and the exploitation of inexpensive labor has increasingly shaped immigration law and lives.

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Mark Karlin interviewed Aviva Chomsky, a professor and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts, about the issues raised in Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal.

Mark Karlin: You write that a key factor in immigration becoming illegal (for many persons of color, particularly from Mexico and Latin America) is the development of a two-track parallel system of labor in the United States? Can you briefly explain?

Aviva Chomsky: As I argue in the book, illegality is one way that is currently used to keep a significant portion of the country’s population in second-class status. Different methods have been used over time, but if you look at any moment in US history, there has been some legal method of disenfranchising part of the population, and maintaining them as a cheap labor force. Past systems include slavery and racial discrimination. It’s very convenient for employers to have access to disenfranchised workers, and it’s also convenient in some ways for citizens in general – it helps citizens have access to cheap food, cheap goods, cheap services, all produced by people who don’t enjoy the same rights that citizens do. (Of course there are downsides for citizens too – but we need to be clear that the problem is the system that exploits people, and not blame the people who are being exploited.) Illegality as a system of enforcing this unequal labor market really rose to the fore after 1965 and especially after 1986, with two immigration “reforms” that made Mexican workers “illegal” (1965) and then made it specifically illegal for them to work (1986), thus increasing their vulnerability in the labor market.

Your book details the historical development of immigration law, with a benchmark year being 1965. Why was that year a threshold that “progressively restricted the rights of noncitizens”? Why was that year so important as a dividing point?

[The year] 1965 was when the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) was passed. The 1965 law dismantled the system of national origins quotas that had been implemented in 1921. The 1921 law explicitly sought to maintain what Congress felt was the appropriate racial and national balance of the US population by restricting the large immigration from southern and eastern Europe that had occurred in the previous decades. It looked back in time to a period when the US supposedly had the “correct” racial-ethnic composition, and set quotas for the different European countries based on their proportion in the population. Non-Europeans basically didn’t get quotas at all. “Asians” were already excluded because they were considered to be “racially ineligible to citizenship.” The law was based on and strengthened the assumption that the United States was meant to be a white country – but it went further than that to rank Europeans into more and less desirable citizens.

The 1965 Act responded to the post-World War II climate of rejection of overt racial discrimination. It set up a uniform quota system, giving every “country” in the world a quota of about 20,000 immigrant visas per year. I put “country” in quotes because we need to think about what this means, in 1965. Most of Africa was colonized, so did not get any quotas. Europe happens to be made up of many tiny countries. So despite looking non-discriminatory on paper, the system of 20,000 per country actually was a way of continuing to privilege European immigration.

The INA drastically changed the way Mexicans were treated under US immigration law. Prior to 1965, there were no restrictions on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. Every restrictive immigration law that was passed made an exception for Mexicans – because employers needed their labor. Now, in the name of treating all countries equally, the 20,000 per year quota was also imposed on Western Hemisphere countries – which basically meant Mexico, the only Western Hemisphere country that was sending large numbers of migrants to the US. At the same time, other laws including civil rights legislation and the abolition of the Bracero Program also made it harder to discriminate against workers on the basis of race in the post-war period. So now, suddenly, with the abolition of the Bracero Program and the imposition of the quota, those Mexicans who had been crossing the border to work, and being recruited and welcomed into the country, were suddenly turned into “illegal” people. So there was a new legal justification for discrimination and exploitation, one more suitable for the times.

The United States was founded by white immigrants to North America who displaced Native Americans, and was a nation pretty much wide open to white immigration from Europe during its post-independence and industrial expansion eras. From the perspective of many white US citizens, how much does racial and ethnic prejudice against people of color from Mexico and Central America play a role in the hyper-state of fear and resentment against them coming to the United States?

I think anti-immigrant racism has become a politically acceptable substitute for racism that is overtly based on skin color. Most white Americans today would hotly deny being “racist” – they would say that “skin color doesn’t matter.” But they have no trouble being “anti-immigrant” – because, they say, “immigrants broke the law!” It’s a new rationale for legal discrimination against people of color.

However, the US business community, under both Bush and Obama, has been pushing for a guest worker program in order to ensure a steady supply of inexpensive labor. They have been frustrated by the end of the Bracero Program a few decades ago and feel the current H-2 visa quota does not provide a sufficient low wage labor force. An August 29 Wall Street Journal article reports, “Mr. Obama is also considering changes requested by business groups to make more visas available for legal immigration, people familiar with White House deliberations have said.” Even Bush was backing immigration “reform” that would supply a cheap labor force to business. Despite the populist right-wing political appeal to anti-immigration sentiment, many in the business wing of both parties wants more visas for Mexicans and Latin Americans because they will, of necessity, generally work for less and demand fewer benefits and work for longer hours. Of course, visas without citizenship provides work without the guarantee of human rights or protections. Is that correct?

Yes, I think any kind of guest-worker program that allows people to come to the country to work but deprives them of full civil, legal and human rights, is a recipe for inequality and discrimination. If we want to claim to treat people equally, then we can’t create legal exceptions to allow some people to be more equal than others.

Can you briefly explain, as you did in a recent commentary on, how a sensationalist outburst in the media and politically about the alleged crisis of a massive invasion of children immigrants across the Mexico border symbolizes a national xenophobic hysteria?

Central American youth have been crossing the border in increasing numbers for the past several years. But the story that appeared in the news was placed and promoted by the anti-Obama, anti-immigrant right wing, with the spin that it was Obama’s supposedly lenient policies towards immigrant youth that had caused what was frequently called a “surge.” Unfortunately instead of looking at the roots of the problem, the Democrats turned it into a humanitarian sound bite: “poor children!”

You also write in your commentary, “In other words, the policies that led to the present ‘crisis’ were promoted over the decades with similar degrees of enthusiasm by Republicans and Democrats.” In addition, you emphasize that both parties are to blame for perpetuating narratives that avoid the reality of immigration issues regarding our southern neighbors. What is your response to Democrats that it is the Republicans who are keeping the “problem” from being resolved?

The Democrats are correct that the Republicans are blocking a “comprehensive immigration reform” in Congress. They are incorrect in implying that what they are calling a comprehensive immigration reform will solve the problem. The model that the Democrats are pushing is very similar to the reform that Reagan signed in 1986: create a path to legalization for some undocumented people, and increase criminalization for others, while further militarizing the border. It did not solve the “problem” in 1986 and it will not solve the problem now.

In Chapter 6, you talk about some of the contradictions in US policy toward undocumented children. Can you expand on that?

Some laws, and some federal and state agencies, protect the rights of children. Other laws criminalize and penalize the undocumented. Since many children are undocumented, or have parents who are undocumented, these laws end up contradicting each other. It’s important to remember that undocumentedness is a status created by our laws. Our laws place people in that status. For adults, it’s justified by the rhetoric of criminalization. For children, it’s harder to rely on that rhetoric to justify discrimination and persecution.

On page 101, you cite that the immigration enforcement and detention system cost a staggering $74 billion in 2011 and employs 800,000 people. Obviously, this creates an economic constituency, including the prison system, to keep current policies in force, doesn’t it?

Yes, it absolutely does. And the private prison system – which has increasingly come to house immigrant detainees – has fought hard to keep the criminalization in place. But struggling localities and local officials have also lobbied for detention centers. It’s a growth industry, and it provides jobs. Immigrant detainees are considered to be desirable detainees (for people who are invested in the prison industry) because they tend to be young and in good health, and not violent – they’re cheaper to care for than the general prison population. That’s why the private prison companies make such a profit off of them.

I was touched by your poignant reference to the Woody Guthrie song that lamented the plight of “deportees” who had worked in the Bracero Program and died in a plane crash in California (at the time it was written): “Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards? / Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?” Why has the agricultural sector in the United States long been an exploiter of the Bracero Program, undocumented and H-2 workers?

The agricultural sector has been an exploiter because our agricultural system has developed in a completely unsustainable way, over several centuries. It’s been based on huge federal subsidies, huge fossil fuel inputs, depleting aquifers, and exploiting cheap migrant labor – in order to make a profit, and to provide cheap food that historically allowed other industries to pay low wages, and allows us to be one of the most obese countries on the planet. It’s based on producing as much as possible at the lowest cost possible, and demanding and receiving federal support in the form of subsidies and legal protections to do so.

Your last chapter offers a large number of solutions to the travesty of US immigration policy toward Mexico and Central America. Do you think that any of them can make it through the sensationalism and racial bias that currently exists in the United States?

No. I think that we can work for some tweaking of the system – like the “Morton Memos” that instructed ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” and stop deporting people who are not violent criminals or a threat to national security, or Obama’s signature Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that gives temporary relief from deportation to some undocumented youth. If the Morton Memos were to actually be enforced I think it would create a dramatically improved climate for human rights and equality for undocumented people. Unfortunately they have not been enforced and deportation continues to be the Obama administration’s default mode of operation.

I think that citizens and policy makers need to face up to how our history, our economy, our laws and our social structures created undocumentedness as a way of legitimating inequality. We need to decide once and for all that we do not want to sustain a society based on differences in status – that all people should be treated equally. Then we can have a real immigration reform.