The Ugly Truth of America’s ‘Whites Only’ Immigration System

Braceros by Domingo Ulloa — painted after several visits to a Bracero camp in Holtville, California. Photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum
Reading Time: 14 minutes

We always hear that the US is “a nation of immigrants.” But, according to immigrant rights activist Aviva Chomsky, this hides the real truth about America’s immigration history.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Chomsky, a professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts, places the current debate about immigration in America in a broader historical context.  

Chomsky outlines the 20th century policies that changed traditional patterns of migration and labor, and replaced them with prejudicial and, she argues, often arbitrary quotas and restrictions that favored Europeans over Mexicans and Central Americans. She explains how the idea of an “illegal immigrant” is a fairly recent one, and that the racialization of illegal immigration is what someone once described as the new Jim Crow.

Chomsky tells Jeff Schechtman how laws in the United States restricted citizenship to white people until the Civil War. Afterwards, thanks to the 14th Amendment, citizenship was extended to people of African descent. Indeed, the whole concept of citizenship by birth was essentially created by the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment in 1868.

New arrivals to the US who were not white were not even considered immigrants, a designation applied only to people from Europe.  

Chomsky says that in the early to mid-20th century, people crossing the Mexican border faced no restrictions because Mexican laborers were so desperately needed in the Southwest. Since Mexicans were considered workers and not immigrants, depriving them the opportunity to become citizens was perfectly legal.

The cumulative effect, Chomsky argues, is today’s inefficient immigration system, which ensnares so many victims, including thousands of young children.

Aviva Chomsky is the author of Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal (Beacon Press, May 13, 2014).

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman. Needless to say, immigration is truly the issue of the day. With children being abused at the border, misinformation is rampant, and even while filled with empathy for these kids our national attitude is still mean spirited. We say we are a nation of immigrants, yet what that really means somehow seems different than the current reality.
We have a system that has grown inefficient, prejudicial, and disconnected from the very human concerns of people seeking a better life. Aviva Chomsky has been active in Latin American solidarity and immigrant’s rights issues for over 25 years. She joins us on Radio WhoWhatWhy to begin to examine where we are today in the broad scope of immigrant history.
Aviva Chomsky is a Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University. She is the author of several books, including Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, and is a long-time student of the history of immigration. It is my pleasure to welcome Aviva Chomsky to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Aviva, thanks so much for joining us.
Aviva Chomsky: Oh, thanks for having me on, it seems very timely now.
Jeff Schechtman: It does seem indeed very timely. One of the things that is so powerful about this is that we now look at immigration as this problem as opposed to something that really was once a very positive part of the American experience. Talk about that in a general sense first.
Aviva Chomsky: Well, I think we need to really look at what the term immigration has meant historically. I think we talk about this being a country of immigrants and that we’ve looked at immigration positively in the past, but I also think it’s important to keep in mind that historically the term immigrant has always applied to not all people who were coming into the United States, only to some people who are coming into the United States.
The immigrants who were regarded positively were basically European immigrants, and people of color who were coming into the United States during most of the country’s history were not considered to be immigrants at all, they were considered to be something else. They were considered to be workers, they were considered to be slaves, they were considered to be people who were allowed to be here but not as immigrants, per se. They were allowed to be here or even forced to be here but to belong to a category of excluded people within the borders but politically and legally excluded from the polity.
This was really the case until after the Civil War when something that Congress did with the 14th Amendment created a new category of citizenship that extended citizenship beyond white people, because citizenship was always only for white people before the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment created citizenship by birth which is the first time that people of color were allowed to be citizens of the United States.
This is what started to change the country’s ideas about immigration because now people of color who came into the country could not be permanently maintained in a sub-caste and not considered immigrants because they were going to have children who would be citizens. There’s been a very strong racialized component in our ideas about who can be a citizen and who can even be considered an immigrant.
Jeff Schechtman: Even among European immigrants though, do we have a short memory in terms of the historical framework because certainly there was pushback against Irish immigrants and Italian immigrants at various points as well.
Aviva Chomsky: Yes, there absolutely was. The immigration legislation, racially restrictive immigration legislation, started after the Civil War precisely to address this problem in the eyes of Congress that people of color were now going to be able to obtain citizenship by being physically present, and then having children who would become citizens by birth.
There was a very strong push to racially restrict immigration in order to maintain the whiteness of the country, and that started with the restrictions against Asians, the Chinese, Japanese, and then all Asians. Asia was defined as a very large territory, about three-quarters of the world’s territory. Then it was extended even to those Europeans who were considered to be not quite white enough so their immigration was never stopped entirely, people like the Irish, the Italians, the Greeks, the Poles, the sort of not white enough Europeans, but it was drastically cut back also starting in 1917 and through the 1920s.
Jeff Schechtman: In the contemporary sense when we have dealt with the issue of immigration in the past, particularly in the eighties, it doesn’t seem like it was with the same fervor that we’re seeing today. Many of the issues were the same, the attitudes were different. Talk a little about that.
Aviva Chomsky: Well, I think we do see something similar to the fervor we’re seeing today, say, in the 19th century, in the early 20th century, but it was always expressed in explicitly racial terms, that is the invasion of the Chinese who are going to take over the territory and who are inadequate citizens because of their race. The attitudes are so extremely racialized, that is the Central American children. Even the term of illegality that’s applied to so many of the immigrants that are crossing the border is an extraordinarily racialized term that has almost come to replace race. It’s not legitimate to openly discriminate on the basis of race anymore but if we replace race with legal status suddenly it becomes legitimate to openly discriminate and to rail against people because of this category that they’re put into which we no longer call a racial category, now we call it a category of legal status.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s also the sense of fear that seems to be more palpable today. In many ways that seems to be a result of so many other things in society changing, the demographic changes that come along with this wave of immigration is one more thing that gins up that fear.
Aviva Chomsky: Yes, and I think that a lot of the fear is really manipulated by the way the system works. I’m just looking in the town next over to Salem, Lynn, the mayor of Lynn is one of these people who’s railing against the influx of new immigrants and the impact that it’s having on the city.
One of the things he points out is that there’s no funding for the school system to deal with new children coming in, the school systems are under-funded. The problem isn’t the new children coming in but the problem is the systematic de-funding of the public school systems over the last decades. That gets turned into an attack on the children rather than looking at the systemic structural causes of the struggles in Lynn schools.
Jeff Schechtman: In a broader sense though, it is reflective of so many other changes that are taking place in society; whether we put it under the rubric of creative destruction, whether it’s as a result of technology, whether it’s as a result of changes in employment, that we are going through a period of fundamental societal change. This, even though it may not be related in any way, the issue of immigration, it just seems like one more change that are making people afraid.
Aviva Chomsky: Yes but, again, I think that we are led by our politicians, by our media, by our popular culture to individualize these fears rather than looking structurally at what’s happening so that … I do think these fundamental structural changes that you’re mentioning, like changes in the employment structure of the country and changes in the social welfare structure of the country, and the public services including the public schools, that these structural changes are truly deeply threatening to many people in the country and deeply destructive to large sectors of American society.
But we aren’t provided with the analytical tools to understand these things that are happening and it’s so much easier to look at the person moving into your neighborhood and say, “Oh, it must be their fault.”
Jeff Schechtman: Do we make a mistake though, in looking to political leaders as a place to find answers to these issues? Does it have to be dealt with, in a way, on a more personal and a more community way?
Aviva Chomsky: Part of the problem can only be addressed at the political issues, that is the way our immigration laws are structured obviously has to be changed. At the same time, it’s both, it’s both structural and personal community. In some ways I feel like the most hopeful types of legal change that are being proposed now are happening at a community level, that is, or even at a state level, state and town level.
We’re given the impossibility of addressing the real basis of the problem in our immigration laws or in our foreign policies, I should say, as well as our immigration laws because in some ways our foreign policies are much more fundamental than the immigration laws in what’s bringing about this influx of undocumented people, and especially undocumented children.
Because people are more empowered at the local level and at the state level to bring about political change, that’s where we’re seeing actually some of the most hopeful legislative changes taking place, for example, in state tuition, in safe driving laws, in the Trust Act where local communities and states are standing up to the federal government and saying we’re not going to implement these harsh punitive and discriminatory laws that we’re having handed down to us.
Jeff Schechtman: When you look at that, the resulting aspect of it is a real patchwork of what the country looks like. That, in many ways, feeds into a lot of this fear that’s put forth. I mean, it’s self-perpetuating, in many respects.
Aviva Chomsky: Yes, absolutely. On one hand, I think it’s really positive that localities and states are trying to take a stand but you’re absolutely right that what we end up with is this sort of patchwork that just doesn’t make any sense, on the larger scale.
Jeff Schechtman: The idea of illegal immigration, one of the things you talk about in Undocumented, is that the whole phrase itself, the idea of it, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Talk a little bit about that, Aviva.
Aviva Chomsky: Yes, and that connects to what I was mentioning earlier, that really until the 1960s the animus against immigrants was very openly and explicitly a racial animus. That is, “We don’t want these people because of their race,” was the way it was expressed, both in the laws and in popular sentiment.
There were some changes in the laws in the 1960s that really created this category of illegal immigration from the 1960s into the present. If you look back, say, in the 1950s when large numbers of, say, Operation Wetback, when large numbers of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were expelled from the country, it wasn’t precisely on the basis of illegality, it was on the basis of race, of Mexican being considered a race, “We don’t want these Mexicans in the country,” and so people who were US citizens of Mexican origin were expelled along with people of varying different immigration statuses.
The laws bringing Mexicans into the country as workers, that is … Interestingly enough, all of the immigration restrictions that were passed in the 19th century — the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Asiatic Barred Zone, the numeric restrictions on southern and eastern Europeans — Mexicans were never restricted during that whole hundred years of laws restricting immigration from, say, 1865 to 1965. There were no restrictions placed on Mexican immigration.
Mexicans were crossing the border in large numbers primarily as seasonal workers, mostly recruited by US employers and brought in on US built railroads that were built specifically to bring them here. From 1942 until 1964 through the Bracero Program, a US government sponsored program exclusively set up with the Mexican government to bring in huge numbers of Mexicans as guest workers.
During that whole time until 1965 there were no restrictions on Mexicans crossing the border into the United States because they were not considered immigrants, because immigrants were people who were coming to stay and Mexicans were considered to be workers, not people who were coming to stay. In the civil rights climate of the 1960s, two really important things happened that tried to start treating Mexicans like all other people in the world as potential immigrants when they crossed the border.
One is that the Bracero Program was ended and there had been a lot of political mobilizing against the Bracero Program for its exploitative nature and the way it undermined labor organizing in the fields and the status of farm workers, whatever their status as workers, whatever their legal or immigration status because of the guest worker program. That was abolished in 1964 and at practically the same time in 1965 a new massive overhaul of the immigration laws were passed that did away with all of the prohibitions, racial prohibitions on immigration and set up a uniform quota system so that every country of the world had a uniform quota.
Now, the rationale behind this was to de-racialize the system and to treat all people equally. But what it did is for the first time put numerical restrictions on Mexican migrants into the United States so that people who had been crossing the border for decades, even for generations to work in the US, suddenly all of their routes, all of their legal routes to do this were cut off. Yet, there need to work and the need of employers to employ them remained so that the Bracero Program was essentially replaced by a massive system of so called illegal immigration.
Nonetheless, that so called illegal immigration was not … Nobody tried to stop it or prosecute it in any way until the 1980s. That is, people were crossing the border illegally in large numbers to work, people who had previously been doing that legally were now doing it illegally but there was really no system at the border to try to stop them from doing it and there was no internal system to stop them from doing it.
That doesn’t cut out until the late 1980s, early 1990s when this true illegalizing of immigration and the idea that illegal immigration should be punished and that the border needs to be controlled starts to take over. This is where I see is the real, really racialization of undocumentedness, turning undocumented status into something to be punished.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the other unintended consequences of this, it seems, was the degree to which we conflated immigration with employment and work, created a situation where unemployment was high, where the workforce, as we talked about before, was beginning to change, that it really fed into all the fears and prejudice that came out of that as well.
Aviva Chomsky: Well, another unpredicted effect of the illegalization of work in 1986, that is making it illegal for people who were in the country without documents to work, and the militarization of the border that starts in the late 1980s, early 1990s, is that the nature of Mexican migration really changes as a result of these new laws of the eighties and nineties.
What had, in fact, been primarily a labor migration in the past turns into a very different demographic phenomenon because once it becomes so hard to cross the border, instead of coming and going people started to come and stay. What had previously been a circular seasonal migration turns into a permanent migration and at the same time shifts from being primarily a young male migration to having many more women and children in it because once people are coming to stay then they’re bringing their families.
There has been historically a connection between migration and work. In fact, there still is. Most people migrate to work, they come to work. It’s also important to look at how the changes in the US economy has, in fact, created new job categories that are still actively seeking immigrant labor, that are seeking workers who can be super exploited in the kinds of jobs that people who are born here who have other options simply are not going to do; jobs that are seasonal and only exist for one or two months out of the year, jobs that are extremely dangerous, jobs that have extremely unpleasant shifts where you’re working 12 hour night shifts and then shifting to day shifts.
The kinds of jobs that this new economy is creating that are so poorly paid, poorly remunerated, poor conditions, that they continue to actively seek immigrant workers who can be exploited because of their lack of legal status.
Jeff Schechtman: Which really explains why we see such a disconnect, even in this current debate that’s going on between the political class and the business class, in many respects.
Aviva Chomsky: Yes, the business class relies on immigrant labor. In some cases, and I’m thinking of Mitt Romney in Massachusetts when he was running for president on a very anti-immigrant platform and it was unearthed by the Boston Globe that he actually hired undocumented workers to clean his lawn. So it’s not even only the business class that so many sectors of the economy are reliant on this indivisible undocumented labor force.
Anybody who eats fast food, for example. You don’t necessarily need to be a businessman or a millionaire to be relying on undocumented labor, anybody who eats any kind of food, really, is probably relying on undocumented labor somewhere along the food chain.
Jeff Schechtman: Given the complexity of all of these issues that we’ve touched on here and given the kind of rhetoric that we’re hearing right now about this issue, talk about how you see or if you see that circle ever being squared; the fact that the reality and the complexity of the issue is so disconnected from the rhetoric it’s hard to imagine how they ever find any common ground.
Aviva Chomsky: You’re right, it is. I think that in some ways what we need to do is turn the focus away from immigration. That is, immigration isn’t the problem, that really we need to look at US foreign policy and US economic policy, both domestic and foreign. We need to have a much greater understanding of what our foreign policy is and how our foreign policy is creating these situations that people are fleeing from in Central America right now, for example.
Second, how our economy is structured and why there’s such a huge demand for exploitable immigrant labor in our economy. I think with a better understanding of these we can see immigration as a result rather than a cause of the problems that we need to look at, at trying to address.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, as we look around the world we see, particularly in the west, immigration from different places seems to be a problem all over the place. This isn’t a problem confined to the US, at this point.
Aviva Chomsky: Well, we also see some very distinct patterns in this immigration and one of them is that colonialism results in immigration. That is, the French go to Algeria, they colonize it, they misrule it, and what do you know? In the late 20th century Algerians start coming to France. The British colonized India. In the late 20th century Indians start coming to Britain, Jamaicans start coming to Britain. Latin Americans are coming to the United States.
There’s a very, very clear relationship between colonialism and the development of post-colonial economies both in the colonizing countries and the colonized countries that has led to the situation that we’re in now. It’s not just a migration of people from poor countries to people in rich countries, it’s a migration of people from formerly colonized countries into the former colonial powers. There’s historical roots to this migration that we can’t just erase.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s ironic that all of these problems come at a time when we talk about globalization and we talk about the homogenization of international culture and we see the free flow of goods and money across borders, but when it comes to people we have a very different problem.
Aviva Chomsky: Yes, it is.
Jeff Schechtman: Aviva Chomsky. Aviva, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Aviva Chomsky: Oh, thanks a lot for having me on the show.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, and you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from immigration cartoon (White & Bauer / Library of Congress).

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