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Immigration Mythology: The Rules Apply to Everyone

The following is an excerpt from "They Take Our Jobs!" and 20 Other Myths About Immigration by Aviva Chomsky. The book was called "An indispensible guide to the current debate on immigration" by the late Howard Zinn. Read more about Beacon's immigration titles at "Beyond SB1070" on


One of the most oft-repeated—and most puzzling—comments regarding the debate on immigration goes something like this: "I'm not against immigration, but I'm against illegal immigration. New immigrants should play by the rules, like our parents and forebears did."

The sentiment reveals a lot about how we've been taught to think about U.S. history: we've been taught to think of this as a country of white, voluntary immigrants. The history of people who don't fall into that category is incidental, rather than central, to the story we learn in school. "The rules," though, were different for Europeans than for Africans, Asians, and Native Americans. For the latter, "the rules" meant enslavement, exclusion, and conquest.

What the people (generally of European origin) who point to "the rules" ignore, moreover, is that when their parents and grandparents came to the United States, they in fact did exactly what so-called "illegal" immigrants are doing today. They decided to make the journey, and they made it. All they had to do was get together the boat fare. The rules were different then. U.S. law explicitly limited citizenship and naturalization to white people. Nonwhites, however, were denied both entry and citizenship. Through a complex process of omission and commission, the law dictated open immigration for white people and restricted immigration for people of color. Immigration and naturalization law created, in the words of Aristide Zolberg, "a nation by design."

book cover for They Take Our Jobs Between 1880 and World War I, about 25 million Europeans immigrated to the United States. They did not have visas or passports. A very small number of them—about 1 percent—were turned back at Ellis Island because they were deemed to be criminals, prostitutes, diseased, anarchists, or paupers. There were no illegal immigrants from Europe because there was no law making immigration illegal for Europeans.

It wasn't until 1924 that numerical restrictions were placed on white European immigration, creating a situation in some ways similar to today's, in which would-be immigrants had to compete, before they left home, for the few available visas to come to the United States. The restrictions placed on Europeans, though, pale in the face of those that the 1924 legislation placed on non-Europeans: as "aliens ineligible to citizenship" because they belonged to the "colored races," they were excluded altogether. Although the 1924 quotas did not apply to the Western Hemisphere— Congress couldn't figure out what "race" Mexicans actually belonged to—the legislation also invented the concept of the "illegal immigrant" and created the Border Patrol to keep Mexicans out. (I describe these restrictions in more detail in the section on immigration and race in my book.)

The last major immigration reform, in 1965, finally removed the racially defined quota system, and replaced it with a uniform quota system for all countries. But the new laws of 1965 were only one factor leading to the huge increase in immigration from Latin America and Asia.

Even more important has been the acceleration of what we now call "globalization." Today's globalization builds on structures developed during the centuries of colonialism that preceded it. One aspect of globalization in the second half of the twentieth century has been a huge population movement from the former colonies into the lands of their former colonial masters. In order to comprehend this global phenomenon, we have to look at the socioeconomic and cultural legacy of colonialism.

In broad strokes, the European colonialism that shaped the modern world could be described as the conquest of people of color by white people, the massive transfer of natural resources out of the colonies and into the colonial powers, and the dispossession of formerly self-sufficient native inhabitants as their lands were taken for the export economy. Modern colonialism began with Spanish and Portuguese expansion in the 1400s, followed by northern European expansion in the 1600s and 1700s. By the end of the 1800s the European countries had carved up much of Africa and Asia, while the United States was extending direct and indirect rule into the newly independent countries of Latin America.

Formerly self-sufficient natives of these lands conveniently served as a cheap or coerced labor force to exploit the resources (land, minerals). The colonial powers received the raw materials and agricultural products that allowed them to industrialize; the colonies were left with depleted lands and political structures that were geared toward tyranny and exploitation. If the dispossessed masses rebelled, colonial armies were quickly mobilized to repress them.

Consider the example of the Dominican Republic. It was colonized first by Spain, then by the United States. (The U.S. invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924 and again in 1965.) The first U.S. occupation brought about massive dispossession and transfer of Dominican land into the hands of U.S.-owned sugar plantations; the second brought about the modern version of colonialism (sometimes called "neocolonialism"), in which the governments of poor countries are forced to create low-wage, lowtax, low-regulation environments for the benefit of U.S. corporations. (The proliferation of these export-processing zones there explains why so many of our clothes bear tags saying "Made in the Dominican Republic.")

The United States has the highest standard of living in the world, and it maintains it by using its laws, and its military, to enforce the extraction of resources and labor from its modern version of colonies, with little compensation for the populations. It is no wonder that people from these countries want to follow their resources to the place where they are being enjoyed.

Most of today's immigrants come from countries where the United States has been deeply involved in the past hundred years: in addition to the Dominican Republic, they come from such countries as Mexico, the Philippines, El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Given the numerical quotas and the preference system that privileges family members of those already in the United States, for most would-be immigrants from the Third World (i.e., people from former colonies—i.e., people of color) there is literally no way at all to receive permission to come here. Even immediate family members, who are granted priority, have to wait up to twenty years to get permission. For those without family members who are citizens or permanent residents, the current law is little different from the one passed in 1924: it permanently excludes them.

The law, then, is inherently discriminatory. It primarily benefits close relatives of U.S. citizens and of permanent residents. For most people who want to come to the United States, the law simply forbids it.

When the law prevented blacks from sitting at a lunch counter reserved for whites, black people protested the law by breaking it—sitting down where they were told they weren't allowed. On many occasions in the past, people have struggled for equality before the law by committing civil disobedience and entering an institution, a neighborhood, a city, a state, or a country that forbids their presence. Today, we think of many of those who broke the law in the past in the interest of equal rights as heroes.

Statue of Liberty Photo used under Creative Commons. Photo by Turkinator on Flickr.