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10 Facts You Didn’t Know about Immigration and the Undocumented

Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal is one part history lesson, one part human drama. In it, Chomsky furthers her mission to advocate for and educate on behalf of undocumented immigrants in the US, delving into their very real experiences from a legal, social, economic, and historical context. The result is as compelling as it is illuminating. As in her previous book, “They Take Our Jobs!” and 20 Other Myths about Immigration, Chomsky seeks to set the record straight, correcting common and egregious misperceptions about the immigrant experience, as well as introducing key facts (such as the ten listed below) about the impact—and importance—of immigration to the US.

016710 Facts You Didn’t Know about Immigration and the Undocumented:

  1. Until 1890, there was no national immigration system or agency in the US. A passport was not required for entry until 1918, and even then it was only for identification.

  2. The concept of “illegality” was created in 1924, when entry without inspection was prohibited and deportability became permanent. This law also restricted European immigration by placing numerical restrictions on it (also known as the quota system); however, non-Europeans were simply not considered as potential immigrants and thus not given quotas!

  3. Most 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 the “process” existed—before the concept of “illegality” existed.

  4. The first Mexicans in the US did not cross any border; rather, the border crossed them. Until 1924, the new border between the US and Mexico was virtually unpoliced and migration flowed openly.

  5. Mexican migration began to be restricted in 1965, but this legislation also transformed the nature of undocumentedness. Being undocumented became “illegal” in a new way at the same time that the law “would make legal immigration practically impossible for ordinary Mexicans.”

  6. Working became illegalized in 1986 with the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Prior to 1986, the 1952 immigration law known as the McCarran-Walter Act made it illegal to “conceal” or “harbor” a person who was undocumented, but not to employ them.

  7. The first attempt to criminalize the employment of people who were undocumented was in 1973, at the initiative of the AFL-CIO and the NAACP. They reversed their position later in 1990 and 2000.

  8. Operation Wetback in 1954 entailed large-scaled round-ups of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Over a million were deported.

  9. Undocumented immigrants often do the cleanup work after a disaster like Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Ike. Some 100,000 Hispanics moved into the Gulf Coast after Katrina—half were undocumented.

  10. Undocumentedness has a strange overlay with race. Most citizens who rail against the undocumented insist that their opposition is based solely on technical, legal grounds: they oppose people who broke the law. But becoming undocumented is a highly racialized crime. “Nationality” itself has its origins in racial thinking, and still bases itself on birth and origin in ways that echo racialism. The categories “Mexican” and “Latino” have been racialized in the United States, and the category of illegality is heavily associated with the category “Mexican,” whether this is understood as a nationality, an ethnicity, or a race.

As historian Vijay Prashad says, Undocumented is a “clear-headed and smart book that locates the struggles of immigrants squarely in the struggles for human rights.” We’ll add that Undocumented is essential reading for anybody interested in navigating the complex, contradictory, and ever-shifting nature of status in America. Undocumented is available now, wherever books are sold.



Aviva Chomsky, author of 'Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal'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 lives in Salem, Massachusetts.