Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal

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9780807001677: Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal

Explores what it means to be undocumented in a legal, social, economic and historical context
 
In this illuminating work, immigrant rights activist Aviva Chomsky shows how “illegality” and “undocumentedness” are concepts that were created to exclude and exploit. With a focus on US policy, she probes how people, especially Mexican and Central Americans, have been assigned this status—and to what ends. Blending history with human drama, Chomsky explores what it means to be undocumented in a legal, social, economic, and historical context. The result is a powerful testament of the complex, contradictory, and ever-shifting nature of status in America.

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About the Author:

Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University. The author of several books, Chomsky has been active in Latin American solidarity and immigrants’ rights issues for over twenty-five years. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction
 
When people say, “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” they imply that they, in fact, understand everything about it. They take illegality to be self-evident: there’s a law, you break the law, that’s illegal. Obvious, right?
 
Actually, illegality is a lot more complicated than that. Laws are made and enforced by humans, in historical contexts, and for reasons. They change over time, and they are often created and modified to serve the interests of some groups—generally the powerful and privileged—over others.
 
Most of the citizens who brag that their ancestors came here “the right way” are making assumptions based on ignorance. They assume that their ancestors “went through the process” and obtained visas, as people are required to do today. In fact, most of them came before any legal process existed—before the concept of “illegality” existed.
 
THE INVENTION OF ILLEGALITY
 
Illegality as we know it today came into existence after 1965. In the decades before 1965, the media rarely depicted immigration in negative terms. Nor did the public or Congress consider it a problem in need of legislation. By the 1970s, though, the demonization of immigrants—in particular, Mexican and other Latino immigrants—and the issue of “illegal immigration” were turning into hot-button issues.
 
There are some particular historical reasons for these changes. Some are economic. The global and the domestic economies underwent some fundamental structural changes in the late twentieth century, changes we sometimes refer to as “globalization.”
 
Some analysts argued that globalization was making the world “flat,” and that with the spread of connection, technology, and communication, old inequalities would melt away. Others believed that new inequalities were becoming entrenched—that a “global apartheid” being imposed, separating the Global North from the Global South, the rich from the poor, the winners in the new global economy from the losers. I’ll go more into depth about these changes and show how they contributed to a need for illegality to sustain the new world order.
 
The second set of changes is ideological and cultural. Like the big economic shifts, ideological and cultural changes are a process; they can’t necessarily be pinpointed to a particular date or year. I use 1965 as a convenience, because that’s when some major changes were enacted in US immigration law that contributed to creating illegality. But those changes responded to, and contributed to, the more long-term economic and ideological shifts that were occurring.
 
 In the cultural realm, overt racism was going out of fashion. Civil rights movements at home and anti-colonial movements abroad undercut the legitimacy of racial exclusion and discrimination. While apartheid continued in South Africa through the 1980s, even that lost its international legitimacy. In the United States, the Jim Crow regime was dismantled and new laws and programs were aimed at creating racial equality, at least on paper. By the new century, people were beginning to talk about the United States as a “postracial” society. At the same time, though, new laws hardened immigration regimes and discrimination against immigrants in the United States and elsewhere.
 
TRUE REFUGEES OF THE BORDER WARS
 
Before deeply delving into the dizzying and sometimes irrational nature of immigration law, it’s helpful to consider what’s actually happening on the ground. I had the opportunity to see firsthand the human tragedy that’s resulted from the new immigration regime in March 2010, when I participated in a weeklong humanitarian delegation with the organization No More Deaths, one of several that take direct action on the US-Mexico border.
 
Volunteers from these organizations attempt to provide humanitarian aid to migrants by leaving water at stations along migrant trails and offering basic first-aid at camps in the desert, among other things. My group, though, was taking testimonies on the Mexican side of the border from migrants who had been caught and deported.
 
During that week, I met several hundred deportees. They were arrested for a crime no US citizen can commit: entering the United States without official permission. Only people who are not US citizens need official permission to enter US territory.
 
Nogales, Sonora, on the US-Mexico border, has the feel of a war zone. Every few hours, a bus from the Wackenhut private security service arrives on the US side of the border filled with would-be migrants, mostly from Mexico’s poor southern regions. Most of them were captured by the Border Patrol somewhere in the Arizona desert. “They used to try to capture us near the border,” one migrant told me wearily. “Now, they patrol two or three days’ walk north of the border. They want to find us when we’re dehydrated, exhausted, blistered, so we can’t run away.”
 
First, the drivers unload their belongings from underneath the bus—a few backpacks, but mostly clear plastic Homeland Security bags supplied by the Border Patrol. After about half an hour, the migrants descend from the bus in small groups. Under armed guard, the lucky ones retrieve their packages and shuffle back across the border to be processed by Mexican authorities. Many have lost everything on their trek through the desert, when they were attacked by robbers, became separated from their group, got lost, or fled from the Border Patrol.
 
Processing takes about fifteen minutes. The migrants receive a slip of paper attesting to the fact that they are deportees. The paper confirms their eligibility for the fragmentary social services that the Mexican government and several Catholic church organizations offer to migrants in Nogales: one phone call, a half-fare bus ride home, three nights in a shelter, and, most generously, fifteen days of free meals twice a day at the comedor, or soup kitchen, run by the Proyecto Kino, supported by both the Mexican and several US archdioceses of the Catholic church.
 
After processing, the migrants emerge on the Mexican side of the border. Taxi drivers and food vendors accost them as they stumble out, dazed and bewildered. “Everybody wants to pretend to be a migrant, to get services,” one provider told me. “You have to look at their shoes. If they have shoelaces, they’re not migrants. Homeland Security takes their shoelaces so they won’t . . .” He gestured slitting his throat and laughed conspiratorially. So the migrants stumble because their feet are raw and torn from walking through the desert, and because they have no shoelaces in their tattered shoes.
 
If they’re lucky, one of the first people they’ll encounter is Sal, with the Transportes Fronterizos (Border Transport) company, contracted by the Mexican government to provide transportation services for deportees. Sal is a deportee himself. In his twenties, he speaks English with a perfect Chicano lilt. That’s not surprising: he came to the United States with his parents when he was three and grew up and graduated from high school in Arizona. “How did you get deported?” I asked him, quickly realizing that we should communicate in his preferred English, rather than Spanish. “You don’t want to know,” he grimaced. “Jaywalking.” Was it racial profiling? The police stopped him for crossing a street where there was no crosswalk, asked him for his documents, and arrested him. In Arizona, local police are empowered to enforce immigration laws.
 
Sal can tell migrants where to find free food and shelter, and how to access the transportation services offered by Grupo Beta, the Mexican government agency charged with removing migrants from the border to prevent them from attempting to recross. He keeps his booth open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., when the last bus leaves for the shelter. Migrants who get deported after that have to sleep on the streets.
 
Most migrants leave their homes in Mexico with identification papers, money, and family members or other traveling companions. Most are deported alone and can spend days or weeks trying to determine the whereabouts of husbands, wives, children, or cousins. Many have also lost their documents and their cash. The buses arrive every few hours, all day and night. The migrants who are dumped and wander the streets of Nogales are the true refugees of the border wars.
 
At the door of the Proyecto Kino soup kitchen, the long line for breakfast starts forming around 8:30 a.m. Some migrants arrive by bus from the shelters, others by foot after spending the night on the street or in the cemetery. The hundred or so men line up on the right, and the ten to twenty women and children, who get served first, on the left. To get in when the comedor opens at 9 a.m. for the first breakfast shift, all of them have to show their deportation document. The paper that proves that they were hunted, captured, and deported for not having the proper documents to enter the United States now becomes their ticket to a free meal.
 
The services available to migrants are paltry compared to their needs. “My wife, my grown daughters, and our two adopted grandchildren are in California,” one man in his fifties told me despairingly. He showed me the adoption papers. His daughter’s children, aged two and three and both US citizens, were taken by Child Protective Services when the daughter became a drug user. He and his wife became their foster parents and then adopted them. “I had to promise that I’d support them and care for them. How can I do that if I can’t get back to them?” He asked to use my cell phone to call his wife and then thrust the phone into my hand. “Talk to her,” he urged me. “Tell her I’m here. Tell her I’m trying to get back.”
 
A young man spent three days waiting outside the exit port. He and his wife were separated during the deportation process. “Her name is Brenda. She was wearing gray sweatpants and a green T-shirt,” he told everyone who would listen. As each bus arrived, he stood waiting with a desperate hopelessness, watching the deportees slowly trickle out, searching for her familiar face.
 
As part of No More Deaths, I could offer these people only a few tokens of aid: a phone to call their relatives, donated clothes and socks, a granola bar or rehydration drink. I could beg them to share their stories with us, so that we could tell them back in the United States and try to change our immigration policies. At the end of the day, we’d walk back to Nogales, Arizona, stepping lightly across the border that had destroyed and divided their lives.
 
THE COURTS PLAY THEIR ROLE
 
In Tucson, Arizona, the Federal Court processes seventy migrants a day through the Operation Streamline program. About 4 percent of migrants who are captured are sent to Streamline, which began functioning in Tucson in 2008 after beginning in Texas as a pilot program in 2005. Between Tucson and Yuma, the other Arizona district using the program, some thirty thousand migrants are “Streamlined” every year.
 
Unlike most deportees, Streamlined migrants are charged with a criminal offense and imprisoned. The daily hearings fall somewhere between a kangaroo court and a slave auction. The migrants are shackled hand, foot, and waist, and sit in rows taking up about half of the courtroom. The judge calls them up in groups of ten or so, and their harassed lawyers, who represent four or five defendants a day, scramble to accompany them. Almost all of these migrants were captured in the desert, and are blistered, exhausted, disoriented, and dehydrated when they are placed in cells. They describe being stripped of their belongings and their jackets and left to shiver in T-shirts under the air conditioning, being placed seventy or eighty people deep in cells designed for four or five. There is no room even to sit, much less lie down; they receive only a small juice box and a packet of cheese crackers in two days.
 
Ten migrants stand before the judge in their shackles, while dozens of others look on. The lawyers hover beside their clients. The judge asks: “Mr. ___, do you understand the charge against you and the maximum penalty? Do you understand your right to a trial? Are you willing to give up that right and plead guilty? Of what country are you a citizen? On or about March 18 of this year, did you enter into Southern Arizona from Mexico? Did you come to a port of entry?”
 
Most answer that they are citizens of Mexico, though on the day I attended the hearing, there were several Hondurans and Ecuadorians. A court interpreter repeats the questions in Spanish simultaneously, and the defendants listen through headphones that they can’t touch because their hands are shackled to their waists. Their lawyers prompt them if they falter in their responses. Mostly, they answer to everything, which the interpreter dutifully translates as yes, except to the port-of-entry question, to which they are supposed to answer no. Some answer dully, staring at the ground; some respond in strong voices, looking up at the judge. A few are dismissed because they don’t speak Spanish, and the court has no interpreters for the indigenous languages of Mexico. A few scorn the headphones and answer in English.
 
Occasionally, a defendant breaks the pattern. One answered yes when asked if he came to a port of entry. The judge was visibly unnerved. “You came to a port of entry?” she asked. “Let me ask the question again. Did you come to a port of entry?” Again, the defendant answered yes. She asked several more times before the lawyer convinced his client to answer no. Another defendant became agitated when the judge began to question him.
“I’m guilty! I’m guilty!” he exclaimed. “I know you’re guilty,” responded the judge impatiently. “But I still have to ask you these questions, and you have to answer them.”
 
“How do you plead to illegal entry, guilty or not guilty?” was the judge’s last question. Every prisoner answered dutifully, culpable—guilty. Most were sentenced to time served and prepared to be deported to Nogales, Mexico. They will leave the country that they sacrificed so much to get to with a criminal record and the threat of up to twenty years in jail if they enter again. They will be among those arriving in Nogales, penniless, lost, and bewildered.
 
What we saw was only part of the picture. The trip to the border can be as dangerous as the crossing and passage through the US side. Every year, many thousands of migrants are kidnapped as they travel through Mexico. Gangs and drug smugglers see migrants as easy targets and count on the fact that the friends or relatives in the United States who raised the thousands of dollars to fund their trip will be able to generate more to pay for their ransom. As violence in the border region increased, migrants made up many of the victims. If a ransom was not paid, or if migrants refused to work for the gang, they might be killed, sometimes in massacres that claimed the lives of dozens.
 
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Descripción Beacon Press, United States, 2014. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. New.. Language: English . Brand New Book. Explores what it means to be undocumented in a legal, social, economic and historical context In this illuminating work, immigrant rights activist Aviva Chomsky shows how illegality and undocumentedness are concepts that were created to exclude and exploit. With a focus on US policy, she probes how people, especially Mexican and Central Americans, have been assigned this status--and to what ends. Blending history with human drama, Chomsky explores what it means to be undocumented in a legal, social, economic, and historical context. The result is a powerful testament of the complex, contradictory, and ever-shifting nature of status in America. Nº de ref. de la librería ABZ9780807001677

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Aviva Chomsky
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Descripción Beacon Press, United States, 2014. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. New.. Language: English . Brand New Book. Explores what it means to be undocumented in a legal, social, economic and historical context In this illuminating work, immigrant rights activist Aviva Chomsky shows how illegality and undocumentedness are concepts that were created to exclude and exploit. With a focus on US policy, she probes how people, especially Mexican and Central Americans, have been assigned this status--and to what ends. Blending history with human drama, Chomsky explores what it means to be undocumented in a legal, social, economic, and historical context. The result is a powerful testament of the complex, contradictory, and ever-shifting nature of status in America. Nº de ref. de la librería ABZ9780807001677

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