As I’ve been doing interviews and talks over the past several months about my book, "They Take Our Jobs!" And 20 Other Myths About Immigration, I've become more and more convinced that a key, central issue that's hampering those of us who support immigrant rights is the absence of a basic, fundamental ability to say “immigrant rights are human rights.” No politician or talk-show commentator is going to risk saying this—but we have to.
Although I stand by my arguments about the myths I try to deconstruct in the book (Immigrants DON’T take American jobs! Immigrants DO pay taxes! Immigrants ARE learning English!) I also, deep down, think these arguments miss the point. Immigrants are human beings who have arbitrarily been classified as having a different legal status from the rest of the country’s inhabitants. The only thing that makes immigrants different from anybody else is the fact that they are denied the basic rights that the rest of us have. There is simply no humanly acceptable reason to define a group of people as different and deny them rights.
How can we claim to oppose discrimination based on national origin when our entire body of citizenship and immigration law is founded on discrimination based on national origin?
When people ask me "why don't they just apply for citizenship?" or "why don't they just come here legally?" they are betraying a fundamental ignorance of our immigration and citizenship laws. People don’t apply for citizenship, or don't obtain proper documents to come here, because the law forbids it. That's right: the law forbids them to come here or to apply for citizenship. U.S. immigration law is based on a system of quotas and preferences. If you don't happen to be one of the lucky few who falls into a quota or preference category, there is basically no way to obtain legal permission to immigrate. And if you are already here without proper documentation, you will never, ever be allowed to apply for citizenship.
Given the choice, nobody would risk his or her life walking through the desert to enter the country illegally, and nobody would risk the constant fear, discrimination, and threat of deportation that comes from being undocumented. Of course everybody who comes here would rather enter the country legally, and everybody who is undocumented would rather be documented. If only the law allowed them to do it!
We had it right back in the 1980s when we insisted that "No human being is illegal." If discrimination on the basis of national origin is illegal, then we need to acknowledge that our immigration laws are illegal. Human rights—including the right to be recognized as a person equal to other people—apply to everyone: no exceptions. Let’s admit that our discriminatory laws are unjustifiable. Let’s abolish the category "illegal" and give everyone the right to exist. We would solve the problem of illegal immigration with the stroke of a pen.
Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State College. The author of several books, Chomsky has been active in Latin American solidarity and immigrants' rights issues for over twenty-five years. She recently wrote on Harry Potter and immigrant rights for the Providence Journal and the affects of coal mining on Colombia for the Boston Phoenix. Read reviews of “They Take Our Jobs!” And 20 Other Myths About Immigration at the Feminist Review and People's Weekly World.