RAZA/RACE REVIEW: No One Is Illegal

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Recent book on immigration by Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis provides historical, economic, social, and cultural analysis to a too-often simplistic debate.

by Pancho McFarland

The immigrants’ rights and immigration policy debate is as complex an issue as you will find in contemporary politics. Yet, the debate is often framed simplistically by both the pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant camps. Immigrant supporters argue that immigrants are people deserving of human and civil rights and a chance at a decent life. Immigrant opposers argue that immigrants are drains on our resources and threats to our culture and national security. Only rarely do complex analyses of the social, cultural, economic, political and historical factors surface in this important debate. Chacon and Davis provide such a thorough investigation in No One is Illegal. The 300+ page book is broken into five parts: “What is a Vigilante Man?”, “Mexico:Caught in the Web of U.S. Empire,” “Mexican Workers: the Other American Working Class,” “The War on Immigrants,” and “Queremos un Mundo Sin Fronteras!.” The 32 chapters are short and readable for a wide audience.

The first part written by Davis places vigilante and Border Patrol violence in historical context. The nativism and xenophobia demonstrated by today’s Minuteman Project has antecedents that begin at least with the U.S. conquest of Mexico’s northern provinces (today’s U.S. Southwest) in 1848. In order to secure white settler dominance in California, whites formed vigilante groups that terrorized natives and Mexicans. Davis details 150 years of such organized racist violence in California in the eleven chapters that make up Part One. He links today’s vigilantism to a history of white violence against non-white workers. He discusses the nativism behind the “Yellow Peril” scare that led to murders of Chinese and burning to the groups of entire Chinese communities, anti-Japanese and anti-Mexican violence during World War II, attacks on farmworkers organizing for better working conditions, and many others. Each episode has similar roots: economic and/or political uncertainty and racism.

In Part II, Justin Akers Chacon examines the historical relationship between the U.S. and Mexico in order to understand Mexican migration to the U.S. This three-chapter section begins with the U.S. conquest of Northern Mexico during the 1846-1848 war. As a result the U.S. acquired vast lands, natural resources including coal and oil, ports and more than 125,000 Mexicans. This theft of Mexican land expanded U.S. territory to California. Chacon points out the irony of “many in the anti-immigrant camp [asking] why Mexicans don’t just go back to their own country” when many of us (including this author’s family) were here and traveling back and forth across today’s U.S.-Mexico border before any Anglo presence there. This chapter helps many understand why immigrant and Mexican American rights advocates respond to the anti-immigrant folks with “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” The next two chapters in this section examine the political and economic relationship between the two countries. Chapter 14 focuses on the change in economic philosophy to “free trade,” “open borders,” neoliberalism that has thrown small Mexican agriculture into disarray causing hundreds of thousands to migrate to the U.S. Chapter 14 focuses on the Border Industrialization Program begun in1965 which established free trade zones along the Mexican-U.S. border. He ends the chapter with an analysis of how the NAFTA has led to further Mexican dependence on the U.S. economy and job loss in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Part III uses five chapters to examine the history of Mexican labor in the U.S. This section illustrates the triumphs and tragedies of Mexican labor in the U.S. since the late 19th century. The authors focus on Mexican labor’s contributions to agriculture and industry and the ways in which elites have manipulated both Mexican and U.S. citizen labor through enacting immigration laws and programs including immigration quotas, the Bracero Program of 1942-1964 (a guest worker program), deportation programs of the 1930s, Operation Wetback, Mexican worker struggles in agriculture an the continuing need for Mexican labor to maintain the U.S. economy. Davis and Chacon illustrate how U.S. elites use immigrant and other legislation to their benefit allowing immigrants when there is a need for cheap labor and clamping down on them when there is less of a demand for their labor. While Mexicans are played with as if toys of spoiled elites, U.S. citizen workers are disciplined and threatened.

Part IV picks up where Part III leaves off by examining how corporations manipulate immigrant labor. Through the racialization of immigrant labor and their separation from the “native” U.S. workforce, immigrant laborers have been categorized as a threat to U.S. workers and their lifestyles. Racism has allowed elites to divide and conquer workers keeping wages low and allowing for violence against ‘foreign’ workers. Chapter 24 examines closely how this racism leads to violence through the “militarization of the Border” whereby the Border Patrol views Mexican immigrants as an enemy to be defeated with the latest military weaponry and technology. The final four chapters of this section examine the changing rhetoric of anti-immigrant advocates after 9/11. The extreme right wing in U.S. politics has used the “War on Terrorism” to increase citizen fears of immigrants by conflating them with terrorists leading to a renewed push against immigrants including new proposed legislation and vigilante violence.

Part V provides examples of how a new civil rights movement is being developed around immigrant rights. Human rights activists, immigrant groups, religious institutions and others have come together to propose new ways of understanding immigration, U.S. and global economics, labor, and justice. Chacon and Davis sum up their new worldview in the last lines of the book. They advocate for a new workers’ struggle writing: “The fight can only conclude when a different, borderless world is constructed, one that puts the interests of human beings over corporations. Along the way we must reject the language, legitimacy, and limitations of “illegality” and tear down the borders between us. No one is illegal!”

Bad SubjectPancho McFarland is an assistant professor of sociology at Chicago State University, a father, activist and resident of South Chicago.


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