Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal.

Author:Wang, Lisa Y.
Position:Book review

Trainloads of Mexican laborers imported daily by American railroad capitalists, backed by the might of Congress ... Sal, an Arizona high school graduate who was brought to the United States by his parents at the age of three, deported for the crime of jaywalking ... Social workers at the border identifying migrants by their lack of shoelaces, anticipating that the Department of Homeland Security will have removed such suicide hazards ... A deported Guatemalan woman's parental rights over her infant son terminated swiftly and obscurely, based on a tenuous legal theory of "effective abandonment" ... A perverse and unconcealed alliance between the private prison complex and languishing border towns, feeding into the latest draconian outcomes of American immigration law ...

Aviva Chomsky masters the power of imagery in her recent book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal. (1) In this gripping, easy-to-read work, Chomsky, a professor of history and an immigrant rights activist, paints the story of Mexican and Central American immigration to the United States from its historical roots to its modern-day reality. In eight chapters, shrewd analysis of legislative history is deftly interwoven with the emotional impact of sheer human drama, revealing the depth and subtlety of Chomsky's research. Undocumented poses a bold-faced challenge to its audience--the mainstream culture tired of immigrants "stealing American jobs" without "getting in line": that their fundamental conception of illegality as a black-and-white schematic is baseless and defective.

Chomsky's introduction, What Part of Illegal Do you Understand?, starts off by shattering the illusion that the United States' treatment of undocumented immigrants is justified by their intentional and spiteful crossing into a morally dubious category of criminality. She begins by challenging the false dichotomy between "legal" European immigrants who arrived before the twentieth century and the wave of "illegal" Mexicans and Central Americans arriving in the late 1900s--a dichotomy that gives Americans opposing immigration reform the tireless refrain that while the United States might be built on immigration, their relatives entered "the right way." Undocumented proves this dichotomy is hollow.

As Chomsky argues, the U.S. government deliberately created the fiction of illegality in the last fifty years to exclude and exploit racial minorities while giving a "large wink" (2) to industries relying on low-wage workers needed to sustain American over-consumption. Chomsky argues that illegality is a recent fiction because there was no "right way" for European immigrants to enter the United States--at the time, there were no lines or legal processes to follow. Indeed, before World War I, the government excluded a mere one percent of the twenty-five million immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, mostly for health reasons (not counting the Chinese, who were excluded on grounds of "racial assimilability"). (3)

From its very inception, the United States has openly racialized its conception of citizenship, despite its formal teachings on fairness and equality. (4) Today, the deportation and deprivation of legal status of undocumented migrants, who are overwhelmingly Latino-American, is a "highly racialized crime" (5) that follows the sordid history of U.S. citizenship...

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