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Why Myths About Immigrants and Immigration Are Still with Us Today

A Q&A with Aviva Chomsky

Los Angeles May Day March
Los Angeles May Day March. Photo credit: David Bacon

Little more than a year into his administration, the egregious myths and misinformed claims Donald Trump has voiced about immigrants and immigration persist and promote aggressive anti-immigrant policies. This calls for Aviva Chomsky’s revised and updated myth-busting book “They Take Our Jobs!”: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration. Crucial for our politically fraught times, this expanded edition contains fresh material addressing what’s been happening in immigration policy for the last ten years. It also helps us understand the underlying assumptions behind the myths. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Chomsky to chat with her about it.

Christian Coleman: Why did you feel it was important to do a revised edition of “They Take Our Jobs!”?

Aviva Chomsky: It’s been over ten years since the first edition came out. Of course, many new things have happened over the course of those ten years, but at the same time, I feel like the debate is in some ways still stuck in some of the same misunderstandings and myths. Sometimes I hear people repeating the myths I wrote about: Immigrants take American jobs! Immigrants don’t pay taxes! They should come here the right way! And I think, Wow, why didn’t they read my book?

In addition to the fact that so many of the same myths are still circulating, I’d say that the tenor of the immigration debate has, if anything, gotten worse in the past decade. I think President Trump has pushed the boundaries of the kinds of aggressive and racist speech that can be considered mainstream or acceptable. I mean, if the President says that immigrants are criminals, he brings that language or those ideas into the mainstream. Trump also pushes some of the myths himself, either explicitly or implicitly. Even if he is sometimes vague about the details, he certainly suggests that immigrants are a drain on the economy, and that they take Americans’ jobs.

So I wanted to bring the book up to date both by filling in some of the changing trends, policies, and activism over the past ten years, and also addressing the ways that the myths have been mobilized in the current political context.

CC: What are some changes (or a big change) in immigration policy that have taken place since the initial publication of the book?

AC: During the Obama presidency, we saw two apparently contradictory trends. On one hand, immigration enforcement went way up. Obama was termed the “deporter-in-chief” because he raised deportations to levels never seen before. On the other hand, Obama made some important concessions to certain categories of immigrants. His implementation of “prosecutorial discretion” during his second term allowed many immigrants with long-term ties to the country to avoid deportation. ICE agents carried out this discretion at an individual level, and then Obama made it official with DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in 2012. DACA granted a temporary legal status to hundreds of thousands of youth who met its parameters: between the ages of fifteen and thirty, brought to the US by their parents before the age of fifteen, high school graduates, in school, or serving in the military. Although apparently contradictory, these two sets of policies were actually two sides of the same coin. Obama tried to neatly divide immigrants into what he termed “felons” versus “families.” He promoted the supposed “innocence” of some immigrants by emphasizing the criminality of others. This criminalization of immigrants is built on a long history and especially on the ways the Clinton administration changed laws to turn a lot more immigrants into “felons.” It also continued to build the foundation for what we’re seeing now under Trump.

As we know, criminalization, and the carceral state, are deeply racialized in the United States. I’d say Trump has taken long-standing beliefs and policies and mobilized racism in two somewhat new directions. First, he is more blunt about ideas that Democrats tried to be more polite about. The Clintons and Barack Obama never used language like “shithole countries”—but their policies towards, say, Haiti and Honduras were just as malicious. Second, Trump is more resolutely anti-immigrant in all respects than any recent president. In general, US leaders have tried to manage immigration to fill labor needs, and have celebrated the country’s immigrant heritage. Even as they criminalized and deported many immigrants, they lauded immigrants whom they defined as deserving. Trump, in contrast, just doesn’t like immigrants at all (except maybe if they are from Norway). He is working to shift millions of immigrants who currently hold legal status (like DACA and TPS) into illegal status and deportation, and seeks to dramatically reduce legal immigration. Trump is simply taking the coercive stance that his predecessors applied to those they defined as “criminal immigrants” and expanding to cover almost all immigrants.

CC: Is there one myth or perhaps a few that you see more prevalent now than before?

AC: I’d say there are two: one, that immigrants are criminals, and two, that immigrants come here to take advantage of the United States. In a way, these are connected—by turning immigrants into “bad hombres,” Trump helps to erase history and the disasters that US policy has helped to create in the countries that immigrants are currently fleeing, especially in Central America.

CC: What would you like readers to take away from the book during our current administration?

AC: So many people have said to me, “How do I convince people who think immigrants take jobs/are dangerous threats/are ruining the economy/etc.?” In the book, I try to address the most common anti-immigrant arguments in concise and fact-based ways. The book also asks readers to read and think critically about how we come to take certain ideas for granted. The most pernicious myths are those that we don’t even recognize as controversial—they are imbedded in our worldview. I think my book asks readers to challenge not just specific claims about immigrants, but deeper ideas about society, economy, and this country.


About Aviva Chomsky 

Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history and the coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University. The author of several books, Chomsky has been active in Latin American solidarity and immigrants’ rights movements for over thirty years. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts.