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The Peculiar Tale of How Immigration Became Illegal

A new book examines current immigration policy through a historical lens and with an eye toward improving immigrant rights.

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants participate in march for Immigrants and Mexicans protesting against Illegal Immigration reform by U.S. Congress, Los Angeles, CA, May 1, 2006
Photo Credit: spirit of america /


This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

If you listen to debates or talk shows on immigration or log on to any of the myriad blogs on the topic, you are likely to hear the following refrains: My parents came legally; why couldn’t they follow the rules and wait their turn? Just what is it about illegal you don’t understand? Aviva Chomsky’s new book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, attempts to answer those questions, and, as she puts it, “denaturalize illegality” — in other words, to arrive at the conclusion that the way US immigration laws operate is absurd.

Chomsky is a history professor and the coordinator of the Latin American Studies Department at Salem University in Massachusetts. She worked for the United Farm Workers union in the 1970s, self-identifies as an activist, and has written extensively on immigrants, labor, and Latin America. Her last book on immigration was “They Take Away Our Jobs!”: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration (Beacon Press, June 2007). In Undocumented, Chomsky writes about current immigration policy through a historical lens and with an eye toward improving immigrant rights. In a slim volume consisting of eight chapters, Undocumented combines history, immigration law, and journalistic reporting to explore the world the undocumented live in, and how undocumented status came to occupy such a pernicious place. Chomsky concentrates on Mexicans and Central Americans because they constitute approximately three-quarters of the US undocumented population.

Chomsky closely analyzes the structure of labor, economics, and US immigration laws, and the way their interplay in the marketplace results in undocumented status, and argues that illegal status is an invented and convenient concept, a strategy designed to provide cheap labor. She argues that with the abolition of slavery, the United States needed a source of cheap labor. After the Jim Crow era, overt discrimination on the basis of race was challenged and became less acceptable. Over time, immigration status took its place. In the same period, work became redefined as a privilege that people without legal immigration status were barred from performing. Since undocumented people nevertheless work, the legal impairment surrounding their labor renders them vulnerable and exploitable. They therefore take on the lowest and least desirable jobs, and their labor provides handsome profits for various industries such as agriculture, construction, landscaping, and others.

Chomsky likens the paradigm that works against immigrants to those Michelle Alexander identifies in The New Jim Crow (2010),an operational structure that results in the mass incarceration of African-American men. “Although, on the surface, the system is color-blind,” writes Chomsky, “in fact, it targets people of color. But it works better in this supposedly postracial age, because it never uses race directly to discriminate. Instead, it criminalizes people of color then discriminates on the basis of their criminal status.”

Chomsky further argues that these systems are rooted in the hegemony of colonialism and continue on a global scale to the present day, creating what some scholars call “global apartheid.” Global apartheid restricts people born in the poorest nations from traveling to wealthier nations. Chomsky deems it fundamentally unfair and challenges readers to ask important questions. For instance, if US-born citizens believe that the freedom to travel is their birthright, why are poor people from other countries barred from doing so? Why should the accident of birth determine who can travel and who cannot? Why should people whose labors enrich the rest of the populace be barred from participating fully in their communities? Chomsky writes:

It is not OK for a public park, a town, a county, or a state to discriminate regarding who is allowed to enter its space. But it’s OK for a country to do that. It’s not OK to treat people differently based on their religion, race, gender, or many other characteristics. But it’s OK to treat people differently based on where they were born or their nationality (which is generally determined by where a person is born). US immigration laws do just that: discriminate, on the basis of nationality, regarding who is allowed to be where.

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