“Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal” by Aviva Chomsky- immigration, legal status, and personhood

Immigration is an extremely messy issue. Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, “law and order” has been a cover for making the “other” unwanted and “illegal.” Every human being has basic human rights. Those do not need to be earned. Aviva Chomsky’s book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal provides both historical background to how immigration came to be viewed in such a negative light as it now is as well as arguments for the basic human rights and dignity of all.

Chomsky provides historical data to understand how immigration became illegal. This is extremely valuable and important because too often, people just say that their ancestors came to the United States the “right way” and make the assumption the process was similar to what it is today. However, there was very little regulation of immigration whatsoever until racial bias began to lead to quotas for people coming in. The Chinese were some of the earliest people targeted, as exceptions and quotas were made to prevent Chinese from becoming citizens. Mexicans were, historically, another national group that was seen either as non-immigrants (not because they were here illegally–no laws governed such migration until relatively recently–but because it was simply taken as a given Mexicans would not stay in the United States) or as a group to be suppressed in its immigration status. Nationality was used to allow for colorblind laws that would simply restrict immigration on one’s nation. As Chomsky writes, “Once status is inscribed in the law, this becomes an automatic justification for inequality: ‘it’s the law!'” (25). The movement to national exclusion of immigrants allowed racist policies to be enshrined in law. After all, countries are not races. Once race could no longer be allowed to deny citizenship, “nationality stood in for it, and citizens of countries like China lost their right to immigrate” (35).

Laws had to be made in order to restrict immigration. Chomsky notes the inequality of movement of people: a United States citizen can, generally, get their passport and unlock travel to virtually any country in the world. Some travel may require a visa with an extra fee, but there aren’t many total restrictions on travel. Contrast this with attempting to enter the United States: here, we have laws that restrict people of other nationalities from entering our country. Similarly, though Chomsky’s book was written before the current administration under President Trump, there have been arguments for and actions banning travel to the United States purely based upon one’s religion. Such restrictions are social, legal constructs that allow the definition of human beings to be tied to national or religious affiliation. Feasibly, this could be expanded almost indefinitely. Thus, immigration law is not an unchanging, immutable thing but rather something that has changed and continues to change. It is mistaken simply to write off the “other” as illegal or even as “other” purely based on laws that have not even been in effect for more than a few decades.

Chomsky delves into the questions related to undocumented status and alleged eligibility for various benefits (it is almost certainly more complex than any reader may think). Then, she moves into undocumented status and working. What is of interest is that labor laws that target undocumented immigrants has, in several cases, led to economic hardship. The exploitation of undocumented laborers helps drive the standard of living citizens of the United States have become used to. One example is in agriculture. “Farm work is so marginal, strenuous, and low paid, that if workers achieve legal status, they quickly move to other sectors… True, for many Mexicans… low-wage, temporary, migrant labor in the United States offers a viable or even hopeful alternative to poverty at home. But this merely means that the US agricultural system depends upon the existence of a lot of extremely poor people in Mexico” (127-128). Furthermore, by making migrant workers “illegal,” this allows citizens of the United States to benefit from their low-cost labor while also not having to provide them with any benefits in turn. “Although the current system benefits many people in the United States, we must also recognize its fundamental injustice and think seriously about how it works and what steps could make it more just. If immigrants are being exploited by the current system, and if undocumentedness is one of the concepts that sustains inequality and unjust treatment, then we need to question undocumentedness itself” (150).

The impact of immigration laws and changing ideals about documentation has tremendous impact on families as well, dividing families and forcing cruelty upon some of the people in the greatest need. The laws that exist in our present situation have come from both Republicans and Democrats, so neither party can claim a high moral ground when it comes to immigration reform. However, such reform is needed, and Chomsky provides several suggestions. Comprehensive reform is a difficult goal to aim for, but Chomsky suggests we ought to instead perhaps question the very basis for immigration law to begin with. A longer quote helps illustrate her points:

[W]e have become accustomed to the notion that controlling the border is a basic prerequisite for security, safety, and sovereignty… The entire immigration apparatus is based on the presumption that we know where people belong and we need to legislate their mobility.
It’s also based on some unquestioned assumptions about countries. It is not OK for a public park… to discriminate regarding who is allowed to enter its space. But it’s OK for a country to do that… US immigration laws do just that: discriminate, on the basis of nationality, regarding who is allowed to be where.
If we really want to address the problem of undocumentedness, or so-called “illegal” immgiration, we need to look more in depth at why the United States made some immigration illegal to begin with… It’s just the latest stage in a centuries-long process of legislated inequality, a process both global and domestic. (205-206)

That is, we need to question the very basis for the need for such strong immigration laws rather than accept public assumptions about them. Reform includes a reformation of our minds and thoughts: a questioning of assumptions and looking at facts instead. Since immigration does contribute to our economy in numerous ways (some of which Chomsky documents), we ought to question why there is such a push to restrict it. “In the most immediate terms, we as a society created illegal immigration by making immigration illegal” (208). Is such a move actually something that is necessary? If so, why? These questions need to be answered not by knee-jerk reactions or platitudes such as “a nation without borders is no nation.” After all, nations may still have borders while allowing for immigration. The United States managed to do so all the way until 1882 when immigration laws targeted Chinese people!

Undocumented is a book that is worth reading no matter your political persuasion. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have offered a holistic view of personhood that allows us to adequately view the rights of all humans as equal. This is something we ought to address. Particularly for Christians, there is no question that all people are equal and deserving of our protection. Chomsky has provided historical perspective and even a way forward in thinking on this complex issue.

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SDG.