Monday, October 13, 2014

A Review of "Undocumented" by Aviva Chomsky, Part II

We don't like to admit that we learn things from books we disagree with. Or from books we agree with, for that matter. If you took people at their word, you'd wonder how anyone ever learned anything to start with, since by the time they become readers of books they are all omniscient beings. What stands in the way of our honest admissions on these points, I take it, is that so often the very idea that provoked us into disagreement in the first place is the same one we are later forced to incorporate into our response to it. Long before we have conceded the fact, therefore, the book has already altered our way of thinking.

Aviva Chomsky's Undocumented is a book designed to provoke people like me into disagreement. That is to say, it is not a book to reach or perturb the vigilante border patrollers or the people who chant anti-immigrant slogans at rallies. If it got into the hands of members of these groups, it would only succeed in confirming many of their suspicions. The book is addressed, rather, to people who already considered themselves to be "as liberal as they come" on immigration, or something like that, before they ever opened it-- the ones who assumed that they already favor whatever expansive or generous or openhanded border policy you can name, and don't need to learn any better. Chomsky wants to ask, in effect, just how much we mean that, particularly when most of us (myself included) still largely take for granted such basic categories as "citizen" and "non-citizen." 

Chomsky's intention to hold certain liberal feet to the fire is clear from the outset: "How can we claim to oppose discrimination based on national origin," she writes in the Preface, "when our entire body of citizenship and immigration law is founded on discrimination based on national origin?" (p. 8) Since, in Chomsky's telling, our immigration law since 1965 has applied equal quotas to all nations, she can only mean by this that the very notion of having restricted borders and a class of citizens with special privileges is discriminatory. And put like that, the claim doesn't sound so implausible, now does it? It was "provocative" and even "outrageous," at first, but it may become the very point we're now tempted to incorporate into our response. Most of us like to think we've improved on the Athenian model of democracy over last several millennia, after all. We like to think we do a fair job of remembering that we too were strangers in the land of Egypt. But do we? This is the provocation of Chomsky's book.

As I indicated in the first part of this review, Chomsky's book can't answer this provocation for us -- we need to do our own thinking and soul searching to do so. And every time I think about it I reach something like the following impasse. Here's how it happens:

We start with the axiom that immigrants have the same set of human rights as all other people (I suspect I haven't lost any of you yet). The trouble begins when we reach the insight that every "human right" in fact has two components. The first is what we might call a moral entitlement. The second is an obligation that falls to some other party to respect or provide for this moral entitlement. These two aspects do not always align as neatly as we would like. Think, let us say, of the moral entitlement of every child to a caring family. That such an entitlement exists few of us would deny. I suspect we would deny, however, that every child is entitled to my caring family, or to yours. We can see that an entitlement on another's part does not always imply an obligation on ours to meet it.

Most of our traditional human rights literature solves the problem of citizenship the same way most of us would solve this problem of family exclusivity. That is to say, rights doctrine takes it for granted that people are entitled to citizenship somewhere ("nationality," in the UDHR's language) but not to citizenship everywhere. Every person gets citizenship in one of the world's nations and that nation is charged with superintending her or his rights.

This would be fair enough, in the best of all possible worlds. But in our world, it has only the very thin kind of "equity" that Chomsky has in mind when she writes: "If the social context is unequal or unfair, even a law that purports to be equal might serve to cover up, or even reinforce, existing inequalities." (p. 48). Her point is that we don't live in a world of sealed nation-states that all have the will, resources, and institutions to provide a full set of human rights to their citizens. Rather, ours is a world made up of some nations that are incredibly rich, and other nations that are hopelessly in debt to the former, and often subjected by them to unfair competition and other forms of exploitation. In such a world, citizenship in the wealthier nations becomes a very exclusive category, the benefits of which are not likely to be matched by citizenship elsewhere.

I would second this point and merely add that such apparently "fair" notions of citizenship, and the "liberal nationalism" in which they are often embedded, can have even darker consequences than those mentioned by Chomsky. If we believe, after all, that everyone has a right to a nation but not necessarily to our nation, then any one particular government has almost no definite obligations to people residing in its borders -- especially when the latter are members of groups deemed to more properly "belong" to some other nation. (The doctrine is the moral equivalent at the national level, we might say, of the northern WASP ca. 1955 who thought that civil rights was well and good, "so long as they don't start moving into our neighborhood").

If World War II demonstrated for all time the evils of illiberal nationalism, many of the events that transpired in its wake showed us that the liberal variety could be extraordinarily deadly as well. The doctrine described in the previous paragraph, after all, gives governments very little reason to object to forcibly transferring whole groups of people across borders, when it is decided that the nation in which they presently reside is not the "right" one for them. And this is exactly the logic the victorious Allies applied to 12 million German-speaking individuals living in various centuries-old communities across Europe, in the immediate post-war years, when they sought to transplant them to Germany -- a brutal policy that resulted in tens, if not hundreds of thousands of deaths. This was happening, meanwhile, around the same time that 700,000 Arab people were finding themselves expelled from or unable to return to their homes and villages in Palestine, because it had suddenly become no longer the "right" nation for them. 1948 was an ugly year on many fronts for liberal nationalism. It was the year in which the seemingly humane doctrine of the "right of every people to self-determination" had become a warrant for ethnic cleansing. I find it deeply disturbing (in light of my own commitment to our traditional human rights documents) to recall that this is the same year the UDHR was adopted, with its language of "nationality."

Let us grant, then, that the liberal nationalist doctrine of citizenship needs to be kept at arm's length; let us concede further the big theme of Chomsky's final chapter, which is that it is difficult to talk about "solutions" to the immigration crisis here in the United States without emphasizing the need to reverse many of our nation's policies abroad that have been driving people to flee Mexico and Central America over the past few decades (such as unfair competition in agriculture, the drug war, the traditional opposition of the American government to progressive reform in these countries, etc.). Even after granting all that, however, I still feel compelled to make the following tiresome point: for the present, we have to live in this unequal and unfair world of ours. We need a border policy now that provides some answer to the crisis in which we find ourselves.

In the first part of this review, I argued that even a minimally generous interpretation of human rights doctrine suggests that our government must provide legal status, in some controlled but definite fashion, to the millions of undocumented people already living here. This, however, led us into a familiar impasse, which is that immigration policy works like a lever -- a release of pressure on one end tends to force down the other. A generous policy toward undocumented people already living here, that is, will typically be purchased only at the cost of instituting a more draconian policy toward those trying to get in. But the very fact that our policy toward people residing inside our borders has become more liberal, meanwhile, makes people not yet residing inside them even more desperate to somehow get across the border. Stricter border control leads them to attempt all the more dangerous crossings. People are already dying in appallingly high numbers in the deserts of the border region, let us recall, in this same awful quest to avoid detection by our Border Patrol. Many more will perish with them if we allow legalization of status to come at the price of heavier border policing.

Faced with the terrible futility of this cycle, many on the Left (and quite a few on the libertarian Right as well), would wish to simply kick the base out from under the immigration see-saw by throwing open the borders. It would seem that this is the direction toward which Chomsky's book tends as well (though the words "open borders" do not actually appear in its contents).

Nor is this an entirely absurd idea. The fears that spring to many of our minds at first mention of "open borders," are probably not quite as justified as they might appear, in the first quiver of panic. I doubt very much there would be quite the mass exodus of people going north from Latin America as is often supposed. All of human history suggests, rather, that it takes a very great deal of violence and coercion to get people to leave their homelands en masse. This is why "peaceful population transfer" is a figment of the bureaucratic imagination -- why those examples of population transfers from 1948 we discussed above were in fact anything but peaceful. As Immanuel Wallerstein once argued on this subject, people really don't want to leave their native countries, for the most part, where their friends and families all reside and in which they have sunk deep roots. This point should maybe be obvious, but it is hard for us Americans to remember, who tend to assume that everyone who wasn't born here must be green with envy.

Nor would an open border policy be quite as radical and historically unprecedented as it sounds. One of Chomsky's key points in Undocumented is that this was precisely the situation that obtained for much of our history of sharing a border with Mexico. And when this border was relatively open, it is not as if all Mexico picked up and moved to the United States. Mexican citizens did work on this side of the border, but usually only in order to return their wages to family members in the old country, whom they would eventually rejoin. By contrast, argues Chomsky, it is the closed border that has made it more likely that people will try to uproot their families and bring them to the United States alongside them -- because doing so has become the only way to preserve family unity, now that traffic between the States and Mexico has been cut off. In a world of open borders, paradoxically, people might be less inclined to stay here long-term, less inclined to move their families with them into the United States, and more inclined to retain their primary ties to friends and families in Latin America. For these reasons, it seems unlikely to me that an open border policy would change life as drastically for many of us as is often made out.

There is one other fear associated with open borders that seems to me to require much more careful and sympathetic attention, however, and that is the concern -- quite real and justified for many American workers (including undocumented ones) -- that new influxes of migrants could depress their wages. For reasons I will come to in a moment, it actually makes very little sense to invoke this specter as an argument against immigration reform, against legalizing the status of undocumented workers, rather than for it. But to the extent that immigration advocates discount this fear or chalk it up exclusively to "racism," they are being profoundly unfair. They are also depriving themselves of a key weapon in their argumentative arsenal.

Aviva Chomsky, for one, has strikingly little patience for such concerns. She repeats a claim made often by immigrant rights activists, but which I do not find especially persuasive -- namely, that having large numbers of undocumented workers in the country does not depress wages, because such workers only toil in jobs that other people would not want. She cites, for instance, the United Farm Workers' "Take Our Jobs" campaign from 2010, in which the union offered to help anyone who asked to find low-wage work in agriculture (p. 209). The point of this -- rather brilliant -- campaign was to show that there was not in fact some large class of American workers, other than undocumented ones, desperate to sign up for these incredibly difficult and dangerous jobs. Very few people, unsurprisingly, took UFW up on the offer to take their jobs.

The problem with using this as evidence against the negative effect of migration on wages, however, is that the reason most people don't want to work in agriculture is because the wages are so low, and part of the reason they may be so paltry is because there are large numbers of undocumented workers available in these industries for employers to exploit. Perhaps the damage to wages in these sectors has already been done, then, and that's why the UFW couldn't recruit non-immigrants into agriculture. As Christopher Jencks once put it in The New York Review of Books: 
"[W]e still have to ask why natives do not want these jobs. The reason is not that natives reject demeaning or dangerous work. Almost every job that immigrants do in Los Angeles or New York is done by natives in Detroit and Philadelphia. When natives turn down such jobs in New York or Los Angeles, the reason is that by local standards the wages are abysmal. Far from proving that immigrants have no impact on natives, the fact that American-born workers sometimes reject jobs that immigrants accept reinforces the claim that immigration has depressed wages for unskilled work."
I can understand why immigrant rights activists would be allergic to this type of claim, but I do not approve of this reaction, since far from undermining the case for legalizing the status of undocumented Americans, Jencks' point can actually render it close to ironclad -- so long, that is, as an immigration reform agenda is married to a serious concern with reforming, strengthening, and enforcing our labor laws. This is because it is precisely our present immigration system that leaves workers so vulnerable to victimization.

Human Rights Watch has documented in detail the ways in which agricultural laborers in particular are at risk of exploitation, chiefly because our existing labor laws carve out enormous exemptions for this sector (largely based on the romantic notion -- which would not have been so unreasonable at the time these laws were drafted-- that if children were going to be working for low pay on a farm, it would be because they were working for their parents, rather than for faceless agribusiness concerns). If these laborers are undocumented, they are all the more likely to come to grief. Legalized migrant workers, by contrast, will be less vulnerable to exploitation. Their employers will have to pay them minimum wages and respect ordinary health and safety regulations, because they will not have recourse to the threat of deportation.

Legalized workers can also organize to press for higher wages, whereas their present status leaves them mostly too vulnerable to attempt to do so. Abolishing the documented/undocumented distinction in our law could lead to higher wages and standards for all workers. These are among the reasons why the AFL-CIO has taken the courageous step in recent years of pressing for immigration reform, over the objections of some of its more nativist-leaning membership (see Chomsky p. 193).

Many immigrant rights activists are hesitant even to open the door, however, to the possibility that the presence of undocumented workers might lead to lower wages and worse conditions for other workers -- chiefly because they want to avoid stoking nativist sentiment against migrants as so-called "job stealers," etc. Yet rights activists may be avoiding this one peril only at the cost of stepping into another -- namely, that of sacrificing one of the strongest moral arguments they can make against our present, iniquitous immigration system, which is precisely that it lowers standards in pay and decent treatment for undocumented and documented workers alike.

The case I am making, then, is one for a lax border policy and broad legalization of status, but only if we are willing to be serious about the rights of labor. There are quite a few interests in this country, after all, that would be more than happy with a poorly-enforced border for many of the wrong reasons -- and that would present themselves as friends of immigrant rights in fair weather. Their presence may tempt us to simply defer pursuing the rights of labor, in quest of saving lives in the present in the border region by loosening enforcement. I am afraid, however, that recent history has tended to show that labor rights are the type of dream that, deferred, have a tendency to "dry up like a raisin in the sun," rather than the type that explodes, to choose from the options of Hughes' poem. More than that, we can say that undocumented migrants will gain little as citizens if they don't likewise gain as workers. If we don't press for the whole package together, immigrant and labor rights at once, we will simply be perpetuating a racial caste system in this society that does little more for undocumented workers in the U.S. than overseas sweatshops do for workers in Asia.

For me to have come this far only to insist that the answer lies in having better labor laws and legalizing the status of all workers so that they may enjoy the protection of these laws must seem a bitter disappointment. In my defense, I warned you in the first part of this review that I was not going to offer a lot of new and innovative ideas here. I am a "boulder-pusher" rather than a "great man," to use Doris Lessing's language in The Golden Notebook, which is to say I tend to believe that a lot of the really important work in the world consists in defending certain truths that ought to have been obvious from the start.

The truth I am defending in this case is an especially obvious and ancient one-- so obvious and ancient it found its way into the Mosaic code. It reads: "You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen alike." (Lev. 24:22 NRSV).

1 comment:

  1. I'm as biased as it is possible to be, but I'd recommend checking out Joseph Carens's "The Ethics of Immigration," which I think seriously investigates the moral claims you're interested in unpacking. This Boston Review piece is a pretty good indication of what it is like: