Chomsky’s Undocumented a Must Read Immigration Debate Book

Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented is a very significant contribution to our understanding of the history leading to the current immigration reform debates. It focuses on the human toll of our recent construction of “illegal immigration.” Building upon Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow thesis about the post-1960s creation of an alternative “caste” of disenfranchised African Americans through the judicial system, Chomsky’s book unveils the way in which the criminalization of immigrants has been used to marginalize millions of people and force them unto “the lowest ranks of the labor force.”


As the author concludes in her preface:

The purpose of this book is to denaturalize illegality. I want to show it as the social construction that it is. I want to show when, why, and how it came to be, and how it came to be socially accepted as a fact. I want to show how it works and what purposes it serves. My goal is to unveil the complex, inconsistent, and sometimes perverse nature of US immigration law that makes some people illegal.

The book’s first chapter, “Where Did Illegality Come From?” questions the very notion of citizenship. Tracing the way in which the world has been divided since 1492, Chomsky states that with the expansion of European colonialism “Ideas about mobility, and who has the right to move where, played an important role in the ideologies of European superiority that justified conquests and colonization.” The chapter looks at the way in which, from the early colonial encounters, Europeans assigned to themselves the privilege of mobility: they could travel, explore, and conquer other lands; convert their inhabitants to their religion; impose their products and traditions; and extract the resources and labor they considered rightfully theirs. Colonial subjects, for their part, did not have this right to mobility, they moved only when the colonizer considered it necessary.

Chomsky argues that this dynamic of mobility and domination remains present to this day. While in its early stages the differentiation was justified by religion (it was the mission of the early Christian conquerors to spread the Gospel and save souls) and later by race, with clearly demarcated racist policies that trafficked people and excluded them from civil participation, today it is a legal system of citizenship, passports, and visas that theoretically regulates this movement. “It seems right and natural to us,” she writes, “that people should be divided by citizenship, and by documents, into different categories with differential rights.” But, under this new regime, she reminds us, “citizens of the former colonial powers (and also, generally, postcolonial elites) can travel freely. These same countries routinely deny entry to people, especially poor people, from their former colonies. Freedom to travel, then, is still a privilege reserved for those in control.”

In the rest of her book, Chomsky goes on to show the way in which the new legal regime that controls who can and who cannot move freely, and the specific construction of immigration as “illegal” and criminal, is an integral part of the United States’ current economic system which depends on an unlimited flow of cheap resources and labor to feed our continued disproportionate consumption:

Illegality is a way to enforce a dual labor market and keep some labor cheap, in a supposedly postracial era. Illegality uses lack of citizenship – that is, being born in the wrong place – to make workers more exploitable. Once naturalized, the status neatly hides the human agency that forces workers into this marginalized status. It is not just coincidence that illegality has burgeoned in the postindustrial societies of the Global North at the end of the twentieth century. It serves a crucial role in their economies and ideologies.


Chapters 2 and 3, “Choosing to Be Undocumented” and “What Part of ‘Illegal’ Do You Understand?” move in two parallel directions. They look at the growth in the United States of a dependence on a steady supply of cheap, temporary labor, and on the political and economic turmoil in Mexico and Central America that has pushed millions of their inhabitants to the United States.  These chapters also look at the way in which immigration law has changed in the United States, particularly since 1965, when the dismantlement of the Bracero program and the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act gave new dimensions to our understanding of migrant work, immigration, and citizenship.

As Chomsky shows, these legal changes, passed at the height of the Civil Rights movement, were supposed to avoid labor discrimination and facilitate documented migration, but the number of available visas did not correspond to agribusiness’ desire for cheap migrant labor, creating an explosive growth of undocumented migrants who for the next few decades would become more and more criminalized. This is also her assessment of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and its aftermath. As she concludes at the end of chapter 4:

Myriad historical and economic factors draw and sometimes force migrants from their homes into the US economy. Many of these factors are the result of deliberate decisions implemented by US employers, investors, and government. At the same time, increasingly convoluted webs of laws, restrictions, and discrimination ensure that migrants remain in a subject position, exploitable and exploited. Today, the system works by drawing or forcing them into a status deemed illegality.

One important point Chomsky emphasizes in these chapters is that throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the category of immigrant corresponded only to those white Europeans who had the potential of becoming citizens. In these early stages either the intent to remain or proof of residence was sufficient for those classified as “white” to become citizens. Other groups were excluded from citizenship and thus an immigrant status. A series of race-based laws excluded Asians from the possibility of citizenship and immigration. Mexicans, for their part, were a particular group, generally considered temporary workers, not possible immigrants or citizens. As Victor Clark of the Bureau of Labor Statistics wrote back in 1908:

the main value of a Mexican… is as a temporary worker in crops where the season is short… Mexicans are not likely to be employed the year round by small farmers, because they are not entertained in the family like American, German, Scandinavian, or Irish laborers of the North. Yet they do not occupy a position analogous to that of the Negro in the South. They are not permanent, do not acquire land or establish themselves in little cabin homesteads, but remain nomadic and outside of American civilization.

The 1965 reforms laws that insisted on a legal immigrant status (granted to a limited number of candidates) contradicted this reliance on migrant, disposable labor.

Throughout her book, Chomsky insists on the arbitrary nature of immigration legislation. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, for example, insisted that potential immigrants had to prove having resided continuously in the United States since January 1, 1982, automatically disqualifying the vast majority of Central Americans; the Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT) granted Temporary Protected Status to Salvadorans, but not to Guatemalans; the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) favored Cubans and Nicaraguans leaving Guatemalans and Salvadorans unprotected. She argues that specially targeted programs, often with temporary protections, requiring repeated applications and extensive bureaucracies created confusion and insecurity. Who qualified? How did they qualify? Which forms needed to be filled? Furthermore, the required documentation was often unavailable to applicants creating a black market for false documents.

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on undocumented work. “Most undocumented people work in three specific types of jobs,” she writes, “all of which tend to be low wage and low status, offer few if any benefits, have difficult or unstable schedules, and offer little job security. They may be seasonal or involve night shifts. The work is generally heavy, unpleasant, dirty, and even dangerous.” Throughout these chapters Chomsky insists that employers depend on the compromised legal status of these workers, as people with legal status can find other, more desirable jobs.

Seasonal agricultural work is one of the occupations that she discusses, but there are emerging sectors that she also considers. First she discusses “in-sourcing”: the restructuring of jobs that had been held traditionally by unionized workers and now have been passed to undocumented ones. Among these are meatpacking, poultry processing, and construction. The other growing sector she discusses is services: from fast food and newspaper delivery to housekeeping and landscaping. These chapters clearly show how employers and consumers have become dependent on a supply of cheap and undocumented labor.

Chapter 6 focuses on the reality of the many mixed status and divided families. It is relevant to point out today that the chapter opens with the growing trend of unaccompanied children, something that is very much in the media’s attention today, but which Chomsky traces back to the 1980s Central American civil wars. She also discusses the pernicious effects of laws that not only restrict family unity, but also actively separate families, many times taking US citizen children away from their undocumented parents and giving them up for foster care or adoption.

The chapter concludes with sections on youth activism and DACA, bringing forth the significant role played by those who grew up undocumented and have now been on the forefront of the immigration reform movement. It is important to note that while Chomsky praises the initiative and valor of the many DREAMer activists, she expresses some concerns about their rhetoric of innocence:

By emphasizing the innocence of students who were brought to the United States as young children with no choice in the matter, did the campaign tacitly accept the guilt of these students’ parents, who had made the decision? Were students being held up as exceptional, deserving, undocumented individuals, thus implying that other undocumented people were not deserving?”

The book’s last chapter, “Solutions,” insists that the crisis created by the notion of “illegal immigration” has to be seen as a structural problem much larger than any immigration reform legislation is willing to recognize. Here she argues that the Senate’s current bill continues focusing on the notion of illegality and, thus, will not provide a long-term solution. In this regard, she praises DREAMer cultural activism. By coming out as undocumented and unafraid they have been changing popular understanding of who undocumented people are. But the book’s concluding paragraph pushes us to think farther:

Although the cultural strategy is a very important way to raise awareness and open a real debate about immigration policy, we also need to address the root global and economic factors that have contributed to today’s problems. In the most immediate terms, we as a society created illegal immigration by making immigration illegal. In larger terms, we created illegal immigration by fostering a global system that bases the prosperity for the few on the exploitation of the many and enforcing it, in the modern era, through borders and exclusive citizenship. It’s up to us to change it.

Recently, Chomsky appeared on Democracy Now!. Here is her interview.

To purchase Chomsky’s book, you can visit the site of Beacon Press, an independent Boston publishing house.


Luis Marentes is an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who wants to explore ways in which to communicate and learn through the new social media. His academic work has focused on Mexican and Latin@ culture in the first half of the 20th century. As a member of a Pars-Mex New England family, Luis also has a great interest in the Middle East, and would hope to help foster an international dialogue. Follow @marentesluis.

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