Thoughts on Undocumented by Aviva Chomsky

Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal by Aviva Chomsky provides a detailed overview of migration and immigration policies specifically within the United States of America as they relate to Mexican and Central American migrants and immigrants. The book traces history from the open borders and heavy recruitment for seasonal work of the 1800’s and early 1900’s through to the first immigration laws targeting Mexican immigrants and the ways in which industry and corporations have benefited from and relied on first seasonal and then undocumented labor. She also talks about the more recent immigration activism and reforms such as DREAMers and DACA and the ways in which they attempt to change the conversations.

In this illuminating work, immigrant rights activist Aviva Chomsky shows how “illegality” and “undocumentedness” are concepts that were created to exclude and exploit. With a focus on US policy, she probes how people, especially Mexican and Central Americans, have been assigned this status—and to what ends. Blending history with human drama, Chomsky explores what it means to be undocumented in a legal, social, economic, and historical context. The result is a powerful testament of the complex, contradictory, and ever-shifting nature of status in America.

The book begins by providing a brief history of where illegality came from. It provides high level ideas and concepts from history of how domination, religion, and race have been used to limit mobility while not delving into the specific laws outside of North America related to this. This general beginning sets the stage for the more detailed examinations in the rest of the book, as it focuses in on immigration history and laws in the US, especially it’s relationship with immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

The author begins from the assumption that we find borders and illegality natural and without question. As my last review showed, I’m not of this mind and I would hope that at least a few others are also of this understanding – that borders and laws and citizenship are constructs created for applied for specific purposes. Chomsky begins by highlighting the similarities between Michelle Alexander’s theory in The New Jim Crow on the criminalization of African Americans and the increasing criminalization of Latinos, with the main difference being that the criminalization of African Americans is to remove them from the labor market while the criminalization of Latinos is to make them especially vulnerable and exploitable in the labor market. This helps set the stage for the ideas and concepts raised through the rest of the book.

Chomsky walks through a history of Immigration laws in the United States, how they were applied, and who they targeted. She also talks about the history of migratory work in Mexico and in Central America and how, in Mexico especially, the US government encouraged it until relatively recently. We see how those coming to work often don’t even realize it is illegal – they are following the same migratory patterns as previously, are working with the same companies, and / or are being recruited by the same recruiters as previously to work within their own country but now the recruiter may be bringing them to a job in the US. She talks about how originally forced migratory work has become a habit for many, especially as local subsistence farming and economic opportunities have disappeared.

In providing a history of immigration law as it relates to those of Mexican and Central American nationalities, some history of anti-immigration sentiment is also provided. In fact, media and politicians are shown as gaining benefits from expressing these sentiments throughout history.

In addition to attracting voters or increasing ratings, the Latino threat narrative serves the more subtle purpose of channeling national anxieties about social inequality; environmental crisis; economic downturn; lack of access to jobs, housing, health care, and education; deteriorating social services; and other real issues facing the US population away from their real cause. Those who benefit from the status quo would rather have people blame immigrants than fight for real social and economic change. (page 102)

Chomsky argues that illegal immigrants are an expected part of the immigration process – that there are less visas available than jobs that need to be filled, that companies prefer to be able to pay employees less and extort bribes up front, and so the system benefits them – why would they change it? The government can deport the employees and then simply assume more will show up to do the work and that any employees injured or who should be able to retire do not need to be assisted in any way. In fact, using undocumented workers makes it much easier for companies to get rid of any who start agitating for better wages or working conditions.

Undocumentedness has everything to do with work and the economy. It is a key component of the late-twentieth-century global system. Every so-called industrialized country – or more accurately, deindustrializing country – relies on the labor of workers who are legally excluded to maintain its high levels of consumption. (page 151)

The use of undocumented labor allows companies to keep prices lower, and allows more individuals within the country to benefit from this exploited labor. Using the structural violence examinations of Violent Borders and applying them to the details provided by Chomsky, we can see clearly how we all benefit from this violence. Lower prices on food, cheap landscaping, and cheap nanny services are just some of the ways in which we might benefit.  In the same way that Jones’ analysis showed the violence caused by keeping poor people within their own borders and subject to low wages and lack of regulation, here Chomsky shows that keeping immigrants undocumented or “illegal” allows companies within the receiving country’s borders to exploit workers in many of the same ways with little to no repercussions.

The inexpensive nature of these services – in part because of the often undocumented immigrant labor that provided them – helped to sustain an illusion of upward mobility for people in the working and middle classes. (page 145)

As well, Chomsky points out the fact that stronger border enforcement has no effect on immigration – while it may make the crossings riskier, it is, rather, political and economic situations in the countries of origin that dictate the fluctuations in migrant crossings. The US has played a part, and continues to play a part, in those very political and economic situations. As well, one large consequence of stronger border enforcement is the breaking of the seasonal patterns of migration – outflows of migrants slows, while new migrants continue to cross over, causing increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants within the borders.

The book ends on a chapter titled Solutions, that unfortunately did not provide many ideas or solutions. The chapter instead provided a recap of immigration law as it relates to people of Mexican and Central American origin. While providing a recap of the book, Chomsky only hints at the idea that the major solution would be free movement for all. Her hope for the book is that it educates people and opens room for more debates, which I think she has done.

This was an interesting and well-written read, although due to the lack of solutions, I did find the book a bit lacking. I wish that chapter had offered true solutions and ideas rather than simply rehashing what had already been said throughout the book. The use of a theory (criminalization of African Americans) that more may be familiar with might also help others see the similarities and civil rights issues endemic to undocumentedness. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who wants to know more about the history of and effects of undocumentedness  on immigrants, on the economy, on regulations, and on all of us.

* Earlier this week I posted my thoughts on Reece Jones’s Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move. The link will take you to that post. I’m working my way through a number of books on immigration policies, borders, and refugees just for my own interest as a bit of a personal project. 

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