No One is Illegal

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Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis have written one of the most important books of the year, with No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border being essential reading for activists on the left doing organizing and anti-racist work. No One is Illegal examines the history of immigration, anti-immigrant violence, the neoliberal origins of contemporary immigration from Mexico, and a host of other critical topics in a single volume. The insightful conclusions drawn by the authors provide a refreshing departure from the mainstream debate over legality and address migration as human right, not as something that should be restricted based on the needs of capital or politicians. Moreover, the book’s readability also makes it suitable reading for that aunt that many of has who believes much of the Republican and Democratic consensus that jobs are being lost because of immigration and smashes through all of the rightwing distortions on immigration.

The book begins with an 80-page essay by Mike Davis focusing on the history of vigilantism and white racist violence towards immigrants in California. This essay’s examination of the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, Pinkertons, conservative labor unions, and the state provides an important context for seeing the current attack on immigrants—led by organizations such as the Minutemen—as part of a continuum of racist activity by the right and their capitalist allies. This vigilantism has been an essential part of creating the social construct of the “illegal” immigrant and providing a continued push for a rightward shift of immigration policy in the United States. The militarization of the border has continued, with politicians building fences and installing networks of surveillance cameras in response to the media-ready images of vigilantes such as the Minutemen who convey the need for urgent action to close the borders. The book also ties the rise of vigilantism to the struggles of migrant workers for better wages and working conditions, showing that vigilantism and anti-immigrant racism frequently increase at the behest of capitalism and serve both to repress immigrant organizing and to break down cross-race solidarity between oppressed workers. Anti-immigrant sentiment has grown as vigilantes have misplaced legitimate concerns over corporate policies such as outsourcing with immigrants, instead of organizing against the corporations that exploit labor both outside of the United States and domestically. However, far from having arisen simply from confusion on the behalf of white workers, the Minutemen and other contemporary vigilantes have ties to organized white supremacist movements. Neo-nazis have been seen at rallies held both by the Minutemen as well as at those organized by the suburban “Save Our State” movement which has organized anti-immigrant sentiment in areas far from the border.

Much of the book explores the history of immigration within the context of the struggle between labor and capital. Capital has long sought to divide workers and pit those of different industries or races against each other in order to prevent the formation of an organized movement of the working class against the ruling class, with contemporary immigration law and deportation procedures being developed to fragment the working class. Anti-immigrant sentiment arose in part because of this goal, with early immigration restrictions being placed on radicals and anti-immigrant violence being committed by nativists who blamed the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877 on Chinese workers. This racism has continued with the construction of the “illegal” Mexican worker, whose societal contributions are ignored in favor of a variety of myths including the idea that migrant workers are depriving “American” workers of their rights and perceived entitlements. This of course ignores the realities of immigrants’ numerous contributions to society. 75% of undocumented immigrants pay taxes, with $6 billion in Social Security and $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes being unable to be claimed because it was paid by undocumented workers using false social security numbers. Immigrant households further pay an estimated $133 billion in taxes to federal, state, and local governments, while adding as much as $10 billion to the economy annually. Undocumented immigrants contribute in this way because they come to the United States to work, with an estimated 92% of undocumented male workers being employed.

While immigration from Mexico has been restricted by the United States, there has been no attempt by the United States to take into account the origins of this migration. Policy has ignored the fact that immigration is motivated by corporate trade agreements and the displacement of workers by capital, and has instead developed a policy of criminalization. This can be seen with the Presidents Carter and Reagan using concern over an “immigrant invasion” in response to movements against U.S.-supported dictatorships as a justification for increasing the militarization of the border, with Carter increasing the Border Patrol budget by 24% and increasing personnel by 8.7%. Reagan followed Carter’s lead and increased funding by 130%, expanding detention centers, setting up checkpoints, and increasing the number of agents by 82%. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed and cross-designated Border Patrol members as drug enforcement agents. However, it was under President Bill Clinton and Operation Gatekeeper—launched in 1994—that the militarization of the border increased most rapidly. The operation sought to seal the border by closing popular crossing points using a multi-faceted strategy of building fences, increasing personnel, and using military hardware and training. This has included the use of Black Hawk helicopters, heat sensors, night-vision telescopes, and electronic vision detection devices, while the Border Patrol has become the largest federal law enforcement body. This militarization has been a death sentence for migrants, with at least 4,000 dying since 1994.

No One is Illegal is one of the most important books that Media Mouse has seen in a while, being both eminently readable and useful for activists organizing in the present. From its deconstruction of rightwing myths about immigration to its working-class internationalism, No One is Illegal is one of the best short introductions on the topic of immigration to the United States and offers a keen analysis of the current situation as well as a historical analysis that places the current struggle for immigrant rights into its proper context as part of the struggle by the oppressed against the elite.

Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis, No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, (Haymarket Books, 2006).

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