“Undocumented” is not as old as you think it is

Beacon Press, 2014

Beacon Press, 2014

Aviva Chomsky’s most recent book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal (Beacon Press, 2014), brings up a common narrative most American children learn early on in school: “We are a country of immigrants.” Throughout the book, Chomsky questions the historically situated ways in which we have defined who is an immigrant and who is not, largely along racial lines. She leads us to question the very root of this immigrant narrative, which she clarifies should rightfully be “a country of [white] immigrants,” and the colonization and exploitation of non-white peoples that allowed this white immigrant country to be built (182). In the course of this questioning, Undocumented reveals that our nation’s “broken immigration system” is more than the result of the mistakes of the past few decades.

Contrary to most Americans’ assumptions, Mexicans who migrated to the US throughout American history weren’t even truly considered immigrants. They were considered workers but not immigrants, mainly because of the circular and seasonal nature of most of the migration, and their movement across the US-Mexican border was considered essential to the US economy (55). Until the 1920’s there were no restrictions on border crossing from Mexico, and the while the Bracero Program from 1942 to 1967 “formalized” Mexican migrant labor and made this migration government-sponsored, they were still specifically cast as workers. So, Chomsky argues, it isn’t until1965 when illegal immigration is created. At this time, it’s the same immigration as it has been previously; as Chomsky explained in an interview, it is “still just as necessary to the economy of the Southwest, it’s still encouraged by all different sectors,” but discrimination on the basis of documentation is now justified by legal terms, and the status of the undocumented as an underclass is formalized.

Undocumented is a history lesson, an immigration policy primer, and a study of what it currently means to be undocumented in America, all somehow contained in a fairly thin volume. Chomsky manages to move between these topics fairly seamlessly, taking the time to situate all of her arguments in within the political, economic, legal, and historical context of US immigration. The book offers a compelling case for the construction of “undocumentedness” in our not-so-distant past, and its creation as a means of economic and social control over a growing Latino population. Many recent attempts of pro-immigrant groups and politicians to improve the situation of the undocumented do not address the roots of the concept of illegal immigration, the system of laws that upholds it, or the industries and businesses that profit from and exploit it. While Chomsky’s final conclusions are fairly grim, leaving little room for optimism (her final chapter, titled “Solutions,” focuses more on which policy “solutions” have completely failed) the book left me wondering. If, given that undocumentedness is not such an old institution, might there be hope for tearing it down and creating something entirely different in its wake?

Chomsky, a professor of history and coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University, has written multiple books on the topic of immigrants’ rights and been involved with activism in immigrant communities for decades. Given this background, the book’s ability to balance specificity and theory makes sense. Chomsky grounds her discussion of the concept of undocumentedness and critiques of the US immigration system, while also bringing in individual case studies and an authentic look at the more personal, day-to-day consequences of being undocumented. She is able to take the personal and the political and not only describe each, but find the link between them (a great encapsulation of what C. Wright Mills calls the “sociological imagination”). The result is a picture of both the minute and the grand elements of what it means to be undocumented, from the deeply personal fears of a parent’s deportation to the extreme and exploitative dependence on undocumented labor in specific sectors of the agricultural and service economy. Chapters on work and families offer a comprehensive outline of the realities of undocumented existence in the US, focusing on the historical structures of employment that have enticed migrants from Mexico and Central America to enter, and then led to an economic system where entire industries depend on the employment of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to maintain profits and keep factories, construction sites, and newspaper routes functioning.

Chomsky walks through the history of immigration in the US- particularly focusing on immigration from Mexico and Central America- to persuasively argue that for the current situation to change, the concept of undocumentedness must be questioned and ultimately dismantled.  She draws way back from colonial history to walk through the ways that control of movement has always been a means to control and oppress entire groups of people, as the colonizer alone maintained the right to freedom of mobility while that of American Indians, blacks, and indigenous peoples was always to some degree controlled.  But the system of illegal immigration, Chomsky argues, is not only built and maintained in order to oppress and marginalize an entire group of people. It also functions to extract labor and profit from low wage laborers in order to feed America’s disproportionate demand for consumption of cheap goods and services. By maintaining illegality of immigrants, businesses can keep much needed low-wage labor while withholding any sort of benefits or better wages or conditions. Illegality is necessary, then, to make workers more exploitable and to create what Chomsky calls a “dual labor market” in a “post-racial era.” Workers are drawn into the labor market and then forced to remain in “this status deemed illegality.” While we claim that the system is broken, Undocumented might suggest that it is functioning just the way it was intended.

Within a day of finishing it, I had already recommended Chomsky’s book to several friends. It’s approachable enough to not require a significant amount of understanding of policy (and generally avoids wonky technical terms) while still digging deeply into unpacking the complexities of the U.S. immigration system. It is significant in its ability to address historical systems, legal and otherwise, head-on while still remaining approachable to a reader who might not be familiar with immigration policy.  But even with this approachability, Chomsky doesn’t attempt to be gentle in articulating the frightening consequences of the construction of undocumentedness, both in the personal lives of the undocumented and for an entire population of immigrants.

A reading of Undocumented, then, is a chance to challenge long-held assumptions about the concept of undocumentedness- and to get a better sense of how tightly the system of illegality is tied to race, social control, and economic injustice in the United States. Chomsky paints a troubling and truthful picture of the role of illegality in order for the economy to function as it currently does, and even beyond that, for society to continually marginalize a large portion of the population. As a reader, I was left plagued with questions about the way forward—and Undocumented provides an excellent place to start such discussions.

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One comment

  1. […] meditation on the role of migration in dividing and shaping a family for generations. I also wrote a review of Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented earlier this year, which I have enjoyed passing around to […]

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