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Academics Editors' Picks Interviews

An Interview With Aviva Chomsky, Professor and Immigration Activist

Aviva Chomsky is Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Salem State University. Her academic work focuses on immigration, the Cuban Revolution and Central American labor movements. Professor Chomsky is well known nationwide as an advocate of immigration reform and workers’ rights. She has published widely in both academic and popular contexts. Her most recent book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, received praise from The New York Times as an “impassioned and well-reported case for change.” In this in-depth interview, The Politic’s Keera Annamaneni and Aviva Chomksy discuss the history of immigration, migrant labor, and the concept of “illegality”—critical issues made even more timely by the highly contentious role immigration has played in the upcoming presidential election.


The Politic: You have stated in the past that the phrase “We are a nation of immigrants” is somewhat misleading, given the United States’ history of restricting immigration. Can you elaborate on these restrictions and what this phrase attempts to hide?

Aviva Chomsky: The first restrictions on immigration trace back to right after the Civil War, when the Fourteenth Amendment creates citizenship by birth, an entirely new concept that means anyone born in the country will be a citizen, although Native Americans are still excluded. Citizenship by birth is designed to rectify the injustices created by hundreds of years of enslavement and forced transport of Africans. People of African nativity and African descent are now granted the right to become citizens, and the new naturalization law is to be written with precisely that wording: people of African nativity and African descent are able to become citizens, but nobody else is. So now, in 1870, in order to become a citizen, you must be a white person or a person of African nativity or descent.

But just think about what is happening in this country in 1870. Approximately zero Africans are immigrating to the United States in 1870. After hundreds of years of forced transport and enslavement, coming to the United States is not a goal for people in Africa. People who are immigrating to the United States in the 1870s are primarily Europeans, Chinese people, and Mexicans. The new naturalization law that allowed naturalization for white people and people of African descent still excludes most immigrants from the United States because they are not white people or people of African descent, so when Chinese or Mexicans come, they are not considered immigrants because they are not eligible for citizenship. After citizenship by birth is implemented in 1868 with the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress is facing the logical impossibility which is that people who are racially excluded from citizenship are coming to the country as they always have been, but now, their children are going to be citizens by birth and Congress doesn’t want that. So immigration restrictions that start in the 1870s are still a project to maintain the white population of the United States, and the first people who are excluded are Chinese women because they can have babies.

Very shortly after that, Chinese people and then, group after group of people are excluded until 1917, when the Asiatic Barred Zone is declared, excluding all people defined as Asian, which is approximately half the world’s people as defined by law. They are not allowed to come to the United States because they are racially ineligible for citizenship, and if they were to come here, their children would be citizens, which would be impossible because they are racially ineligible. Now, at the same time that all of this is happening, no restrictions are placed on Mexican immigrants, and this is because Mexicans are used differently by the country; they’re used as temporary, disposable workers. The idea is that we can’t have Asians coming because they’ll have babies who will be citizens by birth, so instead we’ll rely on Mexican labor because we can deport them before they will have children. It is a lot easier to deport Mexicans than it is to deport anyone else. A pattern of circular migration—recruitment, deportation, recruitment, deportation—characterizes Mexican migration from the middle of 19th century, really, to the present. So the country continues to call itself a country of immigrants, but it is talking about European immigrants, and when we say we are a country of immigrants, we are celebrating a project of white supremacy that goes back hundreds of years.

TP: You’ve touched on how, for 150 years, migration has been circular and unrestricted. Could you expand on the causes behind this circular migration?

AC: Well, in talking about 150 years of circular migration, we’re talking about migration from Mexico. So the economic development of the southwest, after it was conquered by the United States, was based on Mexican migrant labors, especially in railroads and in mining. And using a system of temporary migrant labors has certain advantages for certain industries, especially seasonal industries, like agriculture, one of the industries in the United States that’s very heavily dependent on Mexican migrant workers. Mexicans might want permanent jobs, but if all that’s available are seasonal jobs in agriculture, that that might be what they choose to take.

If people are willing to leave when the season ends, then that works to the benefit of the employer because that means that the employer isn’t really paying the social cost involved in creating their work force.

Let’s think about this mill that used to exist in my town, Salem, a textile mill. That mill was located in the city. That meant that the mill paid taxes to the city and to the state, and they basically, through the taxes that they paid, contributed to the reproduction of the labor forces. Their taxes went to pay for schools, educating children that could grow and work for those factories, and it paid workers who bought things and paid their own taxes.

If a company can import and deport its workers, it doesn’t have to contribute anything to the reproduction of the labor force, it doesn’t have to contribute to the cost of giving birth and raising up to working age of those workers; it can just use them during their prime working age and then it doesn’t have to worry about them in their retirement. It can just deport them in their retirement. Someone else is responsible for taking care of their illnesses, their children, their education, and their old age. There’s some economic advantage to companies relying on temporary labor, but in the case of Mexico, many of the workers preferred to work temporarily because they could maintain their homes, they maintained their farms in Mexico, and it was more to their advantage to migrate temporarily to earn a small amount of cash, and raise their standard of living at home.

There were definitely exploitative aspects both towards the individual and towards the society, which has to invest in reproducing those workers, but there were also positive reasons temporary labor was chosen by poor and marginalized workers who would have preferred to have jobs at home but those not being available, chose to migrate. With the creation of illegality and especially with the hardening of the border, especially through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, crossing the border to work has become a much more perilous and dangerous process. Hundreds of people die every year crossing the border, and many more people who would prefer to continue this circular process were forced to stay in the United States because crossing the border became too dangerous, so they could not return home and hope to come back at a future point in time. So paradoxically, all these attempts to build walls and militarize the border, rather than leading to a decrease in the population of undocumented immigrants in the United States have led to a huge increase in the undocumented population in the US, because they have made it so hard to cross the border that once people are in, they are afraid to go home.

TP: When describing Mexican migrants, you make the implicit distinction between immigrants and migrant workers. What is significant about this distinction?

AC: People of color were always brought into this country to work and were not allowed to become citizens. Even before Mexico existed, when it was still a Spanish colony, people of color were brought into the country, but not as immigrants; they were being brought from Africa at that time. So again, immigrants were legally defined as those who came to this country to become citizens. So the Mexicans who began crossing the new border, which was formed in 1848 when the United States forcibly took over 55 percent of Mexico as what is now the southwestern portion of the United States, the Mexicans who crossed the border were not considered immigrants because they were not racially eligible for citizenship. During certain periods, like from 1917 to 1922, and again from 1942 to 1964, there were legally established guest worker programs, Bracero programs, to recruit Mexican workers on temporary contracts in order to work and then deport them, but after these government-sponsored programs, informal systems of recruitment and state-sponsored deportations of Mexican workers kept the same systems going, so Mexicans were allowed to come and work but not to receive the benefits of citizenship.

TP: You talk about how the Bracero program was the spearhead for “illegal immigration,” and you have also mentioned in previous interviews that just as the United States could not have survived without the Bracero program, we cannot survive economically without “illegal immigration.” Can you talk more about this?

AC: I wouldn’t exactly say we couldn’t survive economically without the bracero program, or that we couldn’t survive economically without illegal immigration. I would say that what we have designed in this country is an exploitative and unjust system. This system relies on Mexican workers that are deprived of rights. I’m not saying we couldn’t survive without this system, but we couldn’t maintain our present exploitative system. Certainly, we could design a different type of economic and social system that wasn’t based on exploiting and deporting people, and I think that’s what we should do.

What we call today illegal immigration really began in 1965, and it began in 1965, because until 1965, there were no restrictions on Mexican migration. It was assumed and built into the law that Mexicans would be deported, but there were no restrictions on Mexicans coming. It was acknowledged that their labor was necessary and that the country did not want them to be citizens, and so, it would deport them. And there were mass deportations of Mexicans not on the basis of illegality because that wasn’t the issue, but simply on the basis of being Mexican in the 1930s and 1950s, that were designed to enforce this system of Mexicans coming and going during and also after the Bracero program. But in 1965, think about the context of the 1960s: the United States trying to promote itself as being against racial inequality and racial discrimination in the aftermath of World War 2;  the United States trying to take on the mantle of being anti-racist in the context of the civil rights movement, trying to expand the rights of people of color in the country at least to a certain extent. So in 1965, the immigration laws also were completely overhauled and instead of a discriminatory system that treated people differently based on their race, the new system claimed to treat people from every country equally and not to discriminate. And thus, for the first time, numerical restrictions were placed on Mexican migration into the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people were crossing the border in order to work and were then either leaving voluntarily or were deported in the end, and all of a sudden, Mexico, for the first time, is given a restriction of 20,000 people a year. This is when forms of immigration, forms of migration, forms of border crossing that had been happening for years, suddenly become termed ‘illegal immigration.’

So our current regime of illegality that brings Mexicans into the country defines them as illegal and thus, deprives them of rights and makes them deportable. Now, illegality is the rationale for that system, but that system isn’t really that different than the system that has existed for years—of bringing Mexicans into the country and then deporting them. It’s just that before 1965, it was justified on the basis of race, and now it’s justified on the basis of illegality which was created solely for Mexican workers.

So, could our economy survive without exploiting non-citizen workers? When the economy of the country was based on the slave system, people said, “Oh, but the economy couldn’t survive without slavery.” Well, of course, the economy could survive without slavery. We would just have to have a more just and equal country. So I would say the same thing about so-called illegal immigration. Of course, the economy could survive without it. It would just have to be a more just and fair economy and a society that does not exclude and marginalize people legally on the basis of assigning them a status of inferiority and being not deserving of rights. And I think that’s what we should do.

TP: Could you please elaborate about what this “just and equal” system would look like, as opposed to the current system we have in place?

AC: Well, in order to understand what a just system of immigration would look like, I think we need to remember that migration is built into human DNA—that we have been migrating ever since we became a species, ever since homo sapiens came to exist, that’s how humans came to populate the earth. It’s really only in the last century or so that nation states have tried to put restrictions on human migration—prior to these restrictions that have been progressively implemented over the last hundred years, societies survived just fine without trying to restrict the movement of people. We need to question the notion that it is somehow necessary to restrict the movement of people because for tens of thousands of years, the planet survived, people survived, cultures survived, without restricting people’s movement. And if we look at the ways in the last 100 years that nations have restricted people’s movements, they have generally been very oppressive, racist and exploitative goals that countries have implemented in trying to restrict people’s movements.

Think about how migration works inside the United States. For example, I am a resident of Massachusetts.  I work in Massachusetts, I vote in Massachusetts, I pay taxes in Massachusetts, my car is registered in Massachusetts, and when I am in Massachusetts, I have to obey the laws of Massachusetts. Suppose they had a 55 miles per hour speed limit; I would have to obey that speed limit when I’m in Massachusetts. But if I want to go Connecticut, I’m totally free to get on a bus or train or into my car and go to Connecticut. There’s nothing restricting me from going to Connecticut, but once I’m in Connecticut, I have to obey Connecticut’s laws: a different drinking age—fortunately that won’t affect me anymore—different speed limit laws, different right on red laws. When I’m in Connecticut, it’s my responsibility to know what those laws are and to obey them. Now suppose I want to become a permanent resident of Connecticut. I have to legally establish my residency there, I have to register to vote there, and I can no longer vote in Massachusetts because I’m registered in Connecticut. I have to declare my residence there, I have to pay my state income taxes there, now I’m no longer paying them in Massachusetts. That is, it’s a perfectly open system. Nothing is preventing me from doing that whenever I want to, but it’s also a well-regulated and implemented system that is legislated and that allows me to not be a law breaker and live wherever I want to live.

There is no real reason countries couldn’t do the same thing. Anyone who wants to move to Connecticut can move to Connecticut, anyone who wants to move to the United States can move to the United States, but if you choose to move here, then you have to obey the laws here. You need to pay your taxes, you need to obey the speed limit, the same way as if a person were to choose to move within the United States. It sounds really radical, but actually, that’s how the world worked until very recently.

TP: You talk about how globalization led to the concept of  ‘illegality’ to sustain the world order and justify a hierarchical structure between societies. Could you elaborate?

AC: If you want to look specifically at Mexico and the United States, the economic policies from the 1960s to the 1990s have contributed to greater migration in the context of globalization. I would go back to 1965, to the Border Industrialization Act which is sort of the prototype for the globalization we’re seeing everywhere today. State-sponsored programs by the United States and the Mexican government, so paid for by the US government, allowed American companies to move to the Mexican side of the border in order to exploit cheaper Mexican labor and in order to evade United States taxes and to evade paying for the reproduction of the labor force, so sort of trying to give United States companies the same advantages they could get in Mexico, and this is all of course, funded by the United States government.

Of course, encouraging United States companies to move abroad isn’t what the United States should be doing, right, because United States citizens are losing their jobs because companies, like the textile mill in Salem, are moving to places where they can pay fewer taxes and get government support and not have to worry about environmental regulations or child labor laws, so it’s a way the United States government is contributing to harming workers in the United States and Mexico. When we’re talking about globalization, one of the things were precisely talking about is the ability of companies to move wherever they want to get the absolute cheapest conditions. It’s called a raised bottom, and it’s putting countries in competition with each other to lower working conditions, to lower wages, and to offer perks to companies to try to attract them there.

Along with the Border Industrialization Act, we have NAFTA, which has had devastating effects for not just United States workers, but in particular, for poor rural Mexican corn farmers because heavily subsidized, mechanized agro-industries can produce corn more cheaply than Mexican workers who have been surviving on corn for thousands of years. So their system worked before but now is being flooded by corn from the United States market, while as a result of NAFTA, government protections for poor farmers are being undermined, so many of the Mexicans who have been crossing the border in the last couple of decades have been called by one historian “refugees of NAFTA.” They are people who have been forced by government policies into this migrant strain. I would say that kind of globalization, which is called neoliberal globalization, works to the detriment of poor people everywhere and to the benefit of investors and corporations.

TP: You have mentioned that Trump’s rhetoric regarding immigration and the policies he is advocating for are nothing new in the political specifically Obama and Bill Clinton have both enthusiastically supported similar policies. Can you expand on this?

AC: Yes, the very policies that Trump is advocating for—building a wall, militarizing the border, strengthening border security—these policies are not new, at least, they are not new to Trump. The policies really date back to the 1980s and 1990s and were enthusiastically implemented by president Bill Clinton and even more enthusiastically promoted by President Obama who has been deporting up to 400, 000 people a year. He made a quota of deporting 400, 000 people a year. They haven’t always met it, but he’s vastly increased the immigration detention and deportation system. So Trump tries to make it sound like he’s presenting something new, but it’s not new. It goes back to the 1980s and 1990s and to democratic presidencies.

We could say that it’s new in the sense that in the first couple of hundred of years, immigration, which was at the time defined as white people entering the country, since they were the only ones that were allowed to be citizens, was enthusiastically promoted. It’s only when immigration was sped up through immigration by birth and the immigration act of 1965 that allowed anyone including people of color to immigrate that the draconian anti-immigrant policies took place.

TP: Revisiting NAFTA and its implications for poor farmers and corporations, what would a profitable trade negotiation that also benefitted migrant workers in lower income brackets look like?

AC: Well, it’s interesting that you used the word profitable. Profitable means that somebody is making money off of somebody else’s work. Shareholders and corporate executives are making money off of somebody’s work, so there’s a contradiction in your premise—there’s a contradiction between fairness and profitability because fairness means that the fruits of the work are distributed equally, and profitability means that the fruits of the work are being funneled upwards. But as far as what policies would be beneficial for the person doing the work, that’s no mystery. We know very well what policies benefit the worker. Policies like minimum wage laws, the right to unionize, child labor laws, like taxing corporations which interferes with their profits, forcing them to contribute to the reproduction of society, investing in schools and public transport and fair housing. It’s not a mystery which policies work, but policies that create legal distinctions between workers always work to the detriment of workers.