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The Part of “Illegal” They Don’t Understand

Congress’s 1965 decision to limit immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean coincided with an increase in that immigration—largely, as a result of U.S. policies, including support for vicious dictatorships in many countries, the funding of civil wars in Central America, and the promotion of neoliberal economic programs throughout the region. The result is our current undocumented population of about 11.7 million, including some 8 million workers.

Thousands of immigration rights supporters march in Washington, D.C., in 2006.,Bill Clark, GNS
Aviva Chomsky, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal
Boston: Beacon Press, 2014
256 pages, $16, paperback.

Anyone who really wants to understand U.S. immigration policy needs to read the brief history of the U.S.-Mexico border in Aviva Chomsky’s often-brilliant new book on immigration.1

Politicians constantly tell us we have lost control of the border. In fact, as Undocumented demonstrates, never in the 166 years since the border was established by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo has it been so tightly controlled as it is now. For nearly half its history it was exactly the thing immigration opponents say they fear most—an open border. The first serious restrictions did not come until a head tax and a literacy requirement were imposed in 1917, and even then there was an exemption for Mexican workers, the people most likely to enter the country from the south. The creation of the Border Patrol in 1924 was mainly a Prohibition Era measure to keep alcohol out.

Far from trying to control the border, U.S. businesses and politicians were trying to get people to cross it. In the late nineteenth century, U.S. firms designed and built Mexico’s railroad system, employing Mexicans to lay the tracks and then luring them north along the lines to the copper mines of Arizona. During the First World War and, on a much larger scale, the Second World War, the U.S. government sponsored the notorious bracero program, bringing hundreds of thousands of Mexican farm workers into the country. Many others worked here without authorization, but with the collusion of the authorities. One Mexican migrant from the period recalled that the first English words he learned were “go ahead”—from a Border Patrol agent encouraging him to enter illegally.2

The United States wanted this labor for a reason: it was cheap and disposable. In agriculture “the main value of the Mexican…is as a temporary worker in crops where the season is short,” a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics researcher wrote in 1908. “They are not permanent,” he noted approvingly; they “remain nomadic and outside of American civilization.”3

This is not to say the immigrants were always welcome. Mexicans and even native-born U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry were chased out of the country when the Great Depression reduced the need for extra hands. In the early 1950s, at the height of the bracero program, the federal government launched the mass deportations known as Operation Wetback. But enforcement measures were not meant to slow migration so much as to provide what historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez calls “effective discipline” over the immigrant workforce. Local officials, for instance, “served farmers’ interests by carrying out deportation raids in cases of union organizing or, sometimes, just before payday,” Chomsky writes.4

“The Invention of Illegality”

For Chomsky, a history professor at Salem State University, this is not just history. She argues convincingly that U.S. immigration policy is fundamentally the same now as it was one hundred years ago. Enforcement is still less a way to stop immigration than it is a tool to turn the immigrants into a vulnerable, easily exploited workforce. The difference is that now instead of being “temporary” and “nomadic,” the immigrant worker has become “illegal.”

Reporter and former labor organizer David Bacon develops the same thesis in his important 2008 book Illegal People, focusing on the stories of individual immigrants.5 Chomsky’s approach is more historical and analytical, emphasizing what she calls “the invention of illegality”—the way the last few decades transformed “illegal” from an adjective to an epithet.6

In 1965 Congress passed major legislation amending the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. The new law eliminated the most blatant racism of the old quota system, including the almost total exclusion of Asians, but it was also the first measure to set a limit on migration from this hemisphere. The hundreds of thousands of temporary workers who for years had, like their parents, entered the United States for seasonal jobs suddenly became “illegal.” And by the 1970s the media had already begun running scare stories about the “silent invasion” of “illegal aliens.”7

Congress’s 1965 decision to limit immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean coincided with an increase in that immigration—largely, as Chomsky points out, as a result of U.S. policies, including support for vicious dictatorships in many countries, the funding of civil wars in Central America, and the promotion of neoliberal economic programs throughout the region. Immigration policy itself probably swelled the number of undocumented immigrants living in the country. The heightened border enforcement that began in the 1980s deterred some people from trying to enter, but by making the trip more expensive and more dangerous, it also encouraged seasonal workers to settle down here with their families instead of returning home each year.

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The result is our current undocumented population of about 11.7 million, including some 8 million workers. The “effective discipline” that the Border Patrol provided for immigrant farm workers in the last century is now imposed on a much larger number of workers by a vastly expanded enforcement system, officially justified by the concept of illegality.

Racism by Other Means

Significantly, the invention of illegality also coincided with another development—the “new Jim Crow” identified by legal scholar Michelle Alexander.8

Just as undocumented immigration was on the rise, the United States began the massive imprisonment of African Americans, often on the pretext of the “war on drugs,” removing them from the workforce and outsourcing many of the industrial jobs they had held. “African Americans became less ‘cheap'” in the 1960s “because they gained legal rights, gained access to social services, and organized unions,” Chomsky explains. But even if the “newly structured economy may not need to benefit unfairly from black labor…it still needs to benefit unfairly from some socially marginalized community.” So the growing population of undocumented workers began replacing African Americans in the most exploited sectors of the workforce.9 At the same time, the charge of “illegality” began replacing the overt forms of racial discrimination that the civil rights movement had made less socially acceptable.

This is not just a matter of function, Chomsky argues. It has always been obvious, of course, that racism plays a big role in discrimination against the new wave of immigrants, which is distinctly less European than the previous waves; the xenophobes give themselves away when they talk about people who “look illegal.” But Chomsky goes deeper. Racial discrimination and discrimination against undocumented immigrants share the same basis, she says—an arbitrary distinction based on an accident of birth. People born in countries like the United States are free to travel and settle almost anywhere they want. People born in other countries, mostly in the global South, cannot even visit a country like the United States unless they are wealthy or lucky enough to be granted a visa. They come here illegally because they cannot come here legally.

Like the Jim Crow system, our current immigration system is what Chomsky calls “legalized inequality.”10 One is based on the family we are born in, the other on the country we are born in. Anti-immigrant websites complain that immigrant rights activists have made “illegal” the “new N-word”—but in fact, the activists have it right.11

Organizing vs. Marketing

These are important concepts in themselves, and Chomsky formulates them in a clear, accessible style, avoiding both academic jargon and distracting rhetoric. But they also have important implications for organizing. She is stressing the crucial issue missing from most of the public discourse about undocumented immigrants—the exploitation of their labor.

Is it really in the interest of the majority of the native-born to continue the super-exploitation of an underclass of workers largely deprived of their rights?

The Center for American Progress has estimated that just providing undocumented migrants with temporary work permits would raise their wages by about 8.5 percent, and this estimate may be conservative.12 The Center, a liberal, D.C.-based think tank, only discusses how these higher wages would increase tax revenues and expand the economy, but there would be other, possibly more significant benefits for the native-born—at least for those who work for a living. A wage hike for undocumented workers would create upward pressure on pay for other workers, raising the wage floor in the same way the minimum wage does. And bringing the undocumented out of their “illegal” shadow world would increase possibilities for organizing at the workplace and in the community.

Undocumented workers themselves have done a lot to focus attention on their exploitation. For all the difficulties they face, everywhere we look we see immigrants organizing, from Justice for Janitors starting in the 1980s to the dramatic sit-in by a largely immigrant workforce at Chicago’s Republic Windows plant in 2008, to the role of immigrants in organizing by fast-food workers now. These struggles provide opportunities to get the message out to a wider public. Many immigrants have service jobs in major population centers, opening up important channels for interacting with the native-born; some of the most serious and passionate discussions of immigration and labor solidarity take place on picket lines at carwashes or in front of the local grocery store whose undocumented employees have called for a boycott.

A number of immigrant rights activists are working on this sort of class-based outreach. The Dignity Campaign, for example, is a network of labor and immigrant organizers pushing for “an immigration reform bill based on human and labor rights.”13 But the immigrant rights movement is still dominated by liberal nonprofits and spokespeople determined to play it safe and never say anything that might upset the “business community.” Undocumented includes a revealing and amusing description of the mainstream movement’s reliance on focus groups and other marketing techniques to sell its message. So far this approach has failed to win approval from the full Congress for a flawed reform bill that the Senate passed in 2012; the only recent victories, though partial, have come through the militant tactics of the Dreamer youth activists, who ignored the “pragmatic” advice of their elders.

Unfortunately, Chomsky fails to draw out all the implications of her own analysis. She does not discuss organizing by immigrant workers, and she follows the mainstream advocacy groups in accepting the idea that “Almost everybody in the United States benefits” from the exploitation of the undocumented, in our capacity as “consumers of low-cost goods and services.”14

Actually, direct labor now accounts for a small part of the cost of most consumer goods and even some services. In any case, as economists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy demonstrated a half-century ago, under monopoly capitalism companies do not typically use savings in costs to bring down prices.15 The housing bubble of the early twenty-first century is a perfect example. Chomsky notes that exploitation of undocumented workers made “building costs artificially cheap.”16 But of course a bubble means precisely that prices will be inflated. The savings from artificially cheap immigrant labor went straight to the banks and the construction—real estate complex, not to homebuyers.

We all benefit from the system, but we need to fight it because it is “fundamentally unjust,” Chomsky concludes.17 She is right that we would need to fight it even if we did all benefit from it, but this is an unnecessary complication: the beneficiaries are the rich, not the rest of us.

While in some ways Chomsky’s analysis is incomplete, this does not diminish its importance. Undocumented supplies indispensable tools for understanding the current immigration system. Now, to paraphrase Marx, we should use these tools to change it. We need to get out to picket lines and other solidarity actions and spread the old Wobbly message to the native-born: an injury to one really is an injury to all, and the working class—wherever its members happen to be born—really has nothing in common with the employing class.


  1. Chomsky’s earlier book on immigration is “They Take Our Jobs!” and 20 Other Myths About Immigration (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007).
  2. Aviva Chomsky, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 56.
  3. Ibid, 50.
  4. Ibid, 54.
  5. David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008).
  6. Chomsky, Undocumented, 59.
  7. David M. Reimers, Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America, second edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 220–23.
  8. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
  9. Chomsky, Undocumented, 38.
  10. Ibid, 14.
  11. For example, Larry O’Connor, “Lib Language Police: ‘Illegal’ Is the New ‘N-Word,'” Washington Free Beacon, July 7, 2014,
  12. Patrick Oakford, “Administrative Action on Immigration Reform: The Fiscal Benefits of Temporary Work Permits,” Center for American Progress, September 2014,
  13. The Dignity Campaign,
  14. Chomsky, Undocumented, 14, 101.
  15. Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966), 57–58.
  16. Chomsky, Undocumented, 131.
  17. Ibid, 14.

David L. Wilson and co-author Jane Guskin are working on a revised edition of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007). Wilson co-edited Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean, from 1990 to 2015.

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