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.
For many of us, the State of the Union is more than just an opportunity for President Obama to publicly frame his policy priorities for the year. It's a moment when all the hopes, struggles, fears, and anticipation of the nation's citizenry crystallize, a moment of reflection and national self-reckoning. And coming after a year of unprecedented congressional gridlock, when continual attacks on the Affordable Care Act resulted in a shutdown of the federal government, and when Edward Snowden exposed the NSA's horrifying breach of public trust, there seems to be a particular urgency associated with this year's address among those who will feel most its repercussions. For those of us in such circumstances, tonight's address is anything more than just a speech.
To that end, we asked a few of our authors, engaged citizens themselves, to speak on behalf of those caught in the political crossfire. What follows is what we hope to hear from our President and what we are afraid we will not hear, both tonight and moving forward into the contested future.
work on immigration issues, I have come to know many undocumented immigrants. My
relationships with them prompted me to write my new book Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal (due out from Beacon
in May 2014). In it, I show how “illegality” and “undocumentedness” are concepts that
were created to exclude and exploit. I probe how and why people, especially
Mexican and Central Americans, have been assigned this status—and to what ends.
The more I wrote,
the more struck I was with how utterly arbitrary our immigration system is. But
writing about it is one thing, and living it is another. Last week the
arbitrariness hit home—literally—when my close friend and housemate was flagged
by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is now threatened with
deportation, after a routine traffic stop near our house.
Mariola and her son Ernesto
Mariola appeared in
my life shortly after arriving in the United States from Guatemala, terrified, traumatized,
homeless, and seven months pregnant. She fled after many years of abuse and mistreatment. I told her that she could stay temporarily
in my extra bedroom while she figured out her next steps. That “temporarily”
evolved into a long-term house-sharing arrangement. Her son, Ernesto, was born
in May 2010 at Salem Hospital and came home to my house, where he has lived
ever since. Both of my own children were away at college and took a bemused
fascination with my new household configuration. Mariola and Ernesto have
become integral and beloved parts of all of our lives.
Aviva Chomsky in Havana. Photo courtesy of the author.
I’ve been traveling to Cuba
regularly since 1995, for research, to attend conferences, and to take students
on short-term study abroad trips, when those have been allowed under the
Clinton and Obama Administrations. (Such trips were prohibited under the Bush
Administrations.) I’ve published several articles in Cuban journals, mostly
about Cuba-related themes.
Last weekend, I was in Havana to
present the new Cuban edition of ¡Nos
quitan nuestros empleos! (the Spanish translation of my book They Take Our Jobs!, which was published by Beacon
in 2007) at the International Book Fair in Havana.
Shortly after They Take Our Jobs! came out in English, friends in
immigrants-rights organizations told me that we needed a Spanish-language
version. It took a while to find a publisher (Haymarket Press) and even longer
to finish the translation. My Cuban friend who helped with the final editing of
the Spanish version, Alfredo Prieto, offered to help me find a publisher in
Cuba as well. He put me in touch with Fernando García of Editorial Nuevo
Milenio, who ended up bringing out the beautiful Cuban edition. I am thrilled
to have the project come to this fruition, and that I was able to be Havana for
Most often, my trips to Cuba begin
in Miami, a strange, liminal place that always seems like a good way to
transition from the United States to Latin America or vice versa. The driver of
my hotel shuttle asks me where I’m going. “Cuba,” I tell him. “You are going to
my country,” he replies. I switch to Spanish and ask him how long he’s been in
the United States. Since 1998, he tells me. “Here you work very, very, hard,”
he goes on. “I’ve lived well here, don’t get me wrong. But Cuba is my country,
and that’s where I want to live. Cuba is wonderful. It’s just the government
that’s bad, that’s ruined everything.”
Even though my flight doesn’t leave
till 9, I have to check in at 6. This is an improvement over the last time I
went, using the same charter company, Marazul Tours. Last March I was told to
arrive at the airport four hours ahead of the flight and look for an agent
wearing a blue t-shirt in Terminal G. Needless to say, there was no
blue-shirted agent anywhere to be found, and nobody answered the phone at the
several numbers I had for Marazul. Nor were there any counters that seemed
connected to our charter flight, which didn’t appear on any of the “departure”
screens. Finally a rumor reached our ears—other passengers looking for the same
blue t-shirt thought we should try Terminal D. With little else to go on, I and
my 13 students trudged over to Terminal D. Still no blue shirt, and no flight
listed on any screen, but the rumors grew thicker, and, finally, we found
ourselves at an anonymous-looking counter checking in. It was like being in
Cuba before we even left Miami—somehow you just have to figure out how to do
things that seem impossible—resolver,
as the Cubans say.
This time, though, I arrive as
instructed with only three hours to spare. Terminal G is teeming with
blue-shirted representatives, and multiple flights to Havana are listed on
every screen. There are only two people ahead of me in line, and I am quickly
checked in. The only sign that this is not a normal flight is when I try to use
my credit card to pay the $20 to check my bag. “Sorry, we only take cash,” I am
told. The blue-shirted representative says he’ll wait for me while I run to the
I usually try not to check my bag,
but this time I’m carrying many bottles of medicines and hand sanitizer that my
Cuban friends have requested. I’m also carrying a half pound of baker’s
chocolate—they want me to bake brownies while I’m there.
A grey-haired gentleman going
through the same lines asks if I’m with a group. No, I say, and you? “Yes, we
are a gentle group,” I hear him reply. I look around—his companions look gentle
enough, but I’m still confused—are they Quakers, or something? Then he starts
to tell me about the activities they’ll be doing in Cuba, and I realize that
they are dentists—a dental group.
By 7 I’m at the gate. I order a
cafe con leche from a nearby stand before I sit down. “Ya está dulce,” the
server tells me kindly as she hands it to me. We’re almost in Cuba—the coffee
automatically comes sweet, and in Spanish.
My seatmate on the first leg of my
journey—from Ontario, California, where I am teaching at Pomona College, to
Dallas—was a graduate student in Spanish returning home from a job interview.
I’m reading a book called Dangerous
Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World. The third
chapter is about a mercury mine in Almadén, Spain. “That’s where my father
worked—he was a mining engineer,” she offers. When the mine closed, the town
died—now there is hardly anyone left. She came to the United States to study,
and will probably stay. Migrations and global connections are everywhere.
My seat partner on the plane to
Havana tells me that she is going back to Cuba for the first time since she
left, in 1968, at age 13. “Look, I’m trembling,” she tells me as the plane
touches down. Her grandmother left Spain for Cuba in her 30s, and returned for
the first time when she was 80. “I’m almost as bad,” she says. I’m embarrassed
to tell her that I’m going to Cuba for the publication of my book on
If the Miami airport experience has
improved, the Havana experience has not. The line through immigration takes
over an hour, and the bags have still not appeared when I finally get through. Nobody
seems to know which of the two baggage claim areas our bags will be on. It’s
hot, noisy, and crowded, and it’s not clear where there are lines to stand in
and where we are supposed to go. Somehow, though, my suitcase appears and I
manage to pass through the required lines and exit the terminal. As always,
there is a huge crowd of excited friends and relatives waiting for people from
the Miami flights.
Every time I travel to Latin
America, I’m reminded how important, and how complicated, water is. At home, we
expect clean water to flow reliably from every pipe whenever we turn a faucet
or push a handle. Kitchen sink, bathroom sink, shower, toilets—there are so
many places where something can go wrong—assuming that there is water at all,
and that it’s not contaminated. The TV screen in the airport welcoming
travelers to Cuba flashes health warnings, one of which is (in Spanish) to
always boil your water before you drink it. This time, my friends advise me to
use boiled water to brush my teeth and to rinse dishes and vegetables in boiled
water after washing them.
Sometimes you can avoid the
foreign-tourist-in-Cuba experience of being “hustled” by staying away from
hotels and tourist sites. This time, though, I’m approached while waiting on a
busy street in Centro Habana outside my friends’ apartment. It’s 96 steps up,
and someone has to come down to unlock the street door for me. “Are you
visiting Cuba for the first time?” a young man asks me from inside a
neighboring storefront offering “economist/accounting services.” “What are you
doing here?” I’m a professor, attending the book fair, I tell him. “Oh, a
professor, what do you teach? Are you interested in economic issues?” Yes, I
say. “My friend just wrote a book on cuentapropismo,
he reveals. “I have a dozen copies at my place down the street. Do you want
one?” Maybe, I say guardedly, but I don’t have much room in my luggage. “Are
you married?” he continues without missing a beat. “I really like you. (Me caes muy bien.)” “Yes, I’m married” I
lie. “It doesn’t matter!” he exclaims. “It can be our secret dream! Nobody has
The book fair is amazing. The main
installation is at the El Morro fort just outside the city. The parking lot is
filled with buses and cars, and walkers are flowing in as well. The many
streets inside are packed with people. Publishers’ displays are interspersed
with food stalls, children’s activity stations, and performances. There is no
security visible, and the crowds are relaxed and jovial. The only thing I can
compare it to is First Night in Boston. But here everyone has come to look at
A young man approaches me after a
presentation by the sister of one of the Cuban 5, national heroes, imprisoned
in the United States on charges of espionage. They were spying on right-wing
Cuban American organizations that had planned and carried out armed attacks
against Cuba. “You probably don’t recognize me,” he says shyly. “You were
friends with my mother in 1995, when you were in Cuba with your kids. I was a
baby then, but when you left, you gave my mom the child seat from your bicycle.
I rode around in it for years.” He’s the same age as my son, in his third year
at the university.
There are multiple rooms with
concurrent book presentations going on all day, every day. Mine is at 3:00
Saturday afternoon. About 30 people fill the room. Two commentators precede me:
one describes my book in detail, and the second one gives my biography. I hope
he is around to write my obituary, because he gets it all so right: my
intellectual trajectory, my activism, my work life. It’s exactly how I want to
I decide to tell the audience about
four life experiences that brought me to write They Take Our Jobs!. They were experiences that opened my eyes to
the myths I had been living with, and together made me want to write a book
that would do the same for others. There’s a great word for it in Spanish: concientización. There’s no perfect
translation in English, but it’s something like consciousness-raising, or
The first experience was when I
left college after my first year, in 1976, to work for the United Farm Workers
in California. I was looking for something different to do, but I had no idea
what I was getting myself into. I had, of course, been eating fruits and
vegetables all my life, but as far as I knew, they came from the supermarket. It
had never occurred to me that everything I bought at the store had a history,
and that someone had to plant, care for, and harvest all of that produce. With
the farmworkers I was thrown right into the middle of a world I had no idea
existed: a world where almost everyone was Spanish-speaking and Mexican, and
where they worked long hours under harsh conditions to harvest the food we
blithely purchased in Massachusetts.
The second experience I recounted
was at UC Berkeley, where I was exposed to Chicano Studies and had the chance
to study with, and then teach for, one of the discipline’s founders, Carlos
Muñoz. The whole premise behind the Chicano Studies movement—like those that
pressed for the creation of African American and Native American studies
programs during that same tumultuous decade of the 1970s—was that existing
curriculums were basically the study of white people, and had left out the
experiences of people of color in the United States. Once again, this was an
eye-opener. All that history I had been learning all of those years, that was
an exclusive, politicized, history? There were whole histories that it had left
out? I decided to become a historian.
The third experience was when I got
to Bates College in 1990, fresh PhD in Latin American history in hand. Being in
Maine, one of the coldest and whitest states in the country, Bates had been
very slow to diversify, and its Latino student population was extremely small
and extremely new. Both students and faculty urged me to create a course on
Latino history, and I was eager to do so. A lot had changed since my Chicano
Studies days, though. Latin American immigration had skyrocketed, and it had
diversified both in its origins—including far more Caribbean, Central American,
and South American immigrants—and in its destinations, moving out of its
traditional centers in California and the Southwest. The new discipline of
Latino—rather than Chicano, or Boricua (Puerto Rican) studies—was developing. I
jumped on the bandwagon and decided I needed to become part of this new wave of
Finally, the experience that led
directly to They Take Our Jobs! came
in May of 2006, with the massive immigrants rights demonstrations. I
participated in a small part of the nation-wide movement, in Salem, where
immigrant-owned businesses closed and children stayed home from school on May
1, the national “day without an immigrant.”
The next day, I was in my
department office conversing with an African American colleague. Nearby, some
white students were complaining about the demonstrations. “I don’t have anything
against immigrants, only illegal immigrants. My ancestors came here legally! These
immigrants should do it the right way, following the law, like my ancestors
did.” This was a discussion I had
engaged in a million times already, and I had my response ready: Your ancestors
came here legally because they were European, and there were no legal
restrictions on European immigration at the time. But somehow, looking at my
colleague, it struck me for the first time: Only white people say that! Of
course the ancestors of most African Americans came here “legally” too—because
their enslavement was perfectly legal. But white people who are so proud that
their ancestors came legally are basically saying that they are proud to have
benefitted from white privilege.
I decided not to get into an
argument at that moment, but when I got home and opened the local newspaper,
the front-page article about the demonstrations quoted a white observer making
the same comment. It seemed more useful to compose a letter to the editor
explaining my thoughts, so I did; it was published the next day. And a few days
later an editor from Beacon Press called me saying that she had seen my letter,
and wondered whether I’d be interested in expanding it into a book. That was
the seed of They Take Our Jobs!.
The eminent Cuban historian Jorge
Ibarra attends my talk. “Whatever happened to your book on Haitian migrant
workers in Cuba?” he demands. On my first visit to the island, he had provided
invaluable help orienting me to the historiography, and the archives, relevant
to my research. “I never wrote the book,” I confess. “I published the research
I did here as an article in the Hispanic
American Historical Review, but then my work ended up moving in different
directions.” “I still have the original, typed manuscript of that article!” he
tells me proudly. “You gave it to me when you came back the next year, when you
were working on it.”
As I get ready to leave the fair,
I’m asked to sign a statement, a letter to Comandante Presidente Hugo Chávez
Frías. “The undersigned intellectuals, artists, writers, and guests who are
participating in the Twenty-second International Book Fair in Havana, from the
San Carlos Fort in La Cabaña, wish to send the President of Venezuela, Hugo
Chávez Frías, our solidarity and our commitment to accompany him day by day in
these moments of his recovery, because we know that he is carrying out a battle
and his spirit of struggles continues intact in these difficult but hopeful
moments he is living through,” the letter begins, in somewhat typical flowery
Spanish-language style. “You have succeeded in extending ties of unity to other
continents and countries besieged at this time by the twenty-first century wars
of recolonization, and you have always accompanied them with your solidarity. Dear
Comandante, you have succeeded, along with other compañeros, in achieving the uncompleted dream of Simón Bolívar,
José de San Martín, and other heroes of our independence, frustrated by another
imperial expansion that framed our dependence since the end of the nineteenth
century... You are at the forefront of this battle with your strength, courage,
and love. Adelante, Comandante, our
peoples are waiting for you.”
It sounds a lot like a song I
played for my students at Pomona last week, “Simón Bolívar,” written in the
early 1970s by the Chilean group Inti Illimani.
Simón Bolívar, Simón,
revivido en las memorias
que abrió otro tiempo la historia,
te espera el tiempo Simón.
Simón Bolívar, razón,
razón del pueblo profunda,
antes que todo se hunda
vamos de nuevo Simón.
You still live in our memories,
Simón History has opened another era Time is waiting for you, Simón... Before everything is lost Let’s try again, Simón.
The letter is not written exactly
with the words I would have used, but I don’t care, it’s basically a get-well
card, and I sign it, imagining that one day David Horowitz will discover it or
the National Enquirer will splash a
headline, “Aviva Chomsky claims Hugo Chávez at ‘forefront of battle’ and calls
for him to forge ahead!” But I doubt I’m important enough for it to merit any
notice at all. And it feels like the least I can do.
Myth 7: THE RULES APPLY TO EVERYONE, SO NEW IMMIGRANTS NEED TO FOLLOW THEM JUST AS IMMIGRANTS IN THE PAST DID
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."
During a week in Nogales in March, working with the No More Deaths documentation project, I must have met several hundred deportees. They were arrested for a crime that no U.S. citizen can commit: entering the United States without official permission. Only people who are not U.S. citizens need special permission to enter U.S. territory.
When you get your U.S. passport in the mail, it comes with a flyer that says "With your U.S. passport, the World is Yours!" Holders of the U.S. passport are accustomed to simply arriving at the border of another country, showing their passport, and easily crossing in. Rarely, they have to apply beforehand for a visa. If they pay the fee and fill out the application correctly, the visa is routinely granted. Holders of a U.S. passport tend to believe that freedom to travel is their birthright, a view reinforced by the literature that comes with their passport. For the cost of a plane ticket, they can leave the country they were born in any time they want.
For most of the world's population, though, freedom to travel is a distant dream. They can't leave the country of their birth because instead of that magical ownership of the world that comes with a U.S. passport, they are citizens of countries in Africa, Latin America, or most of Asia. Many of them are also poor, and people of color. They can't leave their countries because no other country will let them in. Least of all the United States. We live in a kind of global apartheid, where whole countries—almost all of them in the First World—shut themselves off to travelers, while assuming that their own citizens have the right to travel anywhere they choose. Meanwhile the citizens of other countries—mostly in the Third World—can't travel at all because no country will let them in.
In early March I spoke about immigration rights in a colleague's class at Salem State. "We can't be expected to take care of all the world's needy people," one student protested. "If we let in everybody who wanted to come, we couldn't maintain our standard of living here."
A week later I was on the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, collecting testimonies from migrants who had been captured in the Arizona desert and deported back across the border. Dazed, exhausted and dehydrated, they hobbled on raw, blistered feet and clutched small plastic bags stamped "Homeland Security" that held all of their worldly possessions. Although my supposed task was to document abuses by the U.S. border patrol, most migrants had more pressing hopes when I approached them. "Can you help me get in? Could you adopt me?"
The student's words haunted me just as the mass of dispossessed humanity haunted me, just as the barbed-wire-topped wall that slices in half the city of Nogales haunted me, during the week I spent there.