What is the difference between a “legal” and “illegal” immigrant?

Let me offer an answer to the above question in two versions, one short and direct and the other much longer but more explanatory.

The difference is “race.”

In the most literal of senses, with respect to race, the United States is an ignorant nation. We lack accurate, complex, and meaningful knowledge of race, as it relates to both our past and present. Put more directly, we don’t understand race. And we don’t understand how to dismantle its negative effects on everyday life.

Indeed, our ignorance nurtures a condition in which any collective ability to create a more equitable and humane society along these lines is almost instantly derailed. This is not for lack of good intentions, but for lack of deep understanding. Those united in some form of struggle against racism often do not know what it is they fight against and, accordingly, find themselves unable make true progress. Others, ignorant of the myriad ways they cling to and feed the very monster they hope to kill, end up serving their foe more than the cause of freedom.

[You may be thinking here, “What about the Civil Rights movement?” For the sake of time, I defer to Shirley Chisholm’s bold words on the subject, published in her 1971 biography, Unbought and Unbossed. Find it in a library somewhere and all will become clear.]

As a teacher, and as a historian, I view the alteration of this condition as difficult but by no means impossible. All ignorance is curable; it is the most curable of all social ills. The great healer—education—is not as accessible as it should be, nor as enriching as it must, but that, too, is changeable. Our biggest collective advantage, I hope, is that most of “us” thirst for enlightenment, for experiences helping each to better understand their self and others.

Unfortunately, that thirst is often at the heart of our ignorance. Absent exposure to and training in critical analysis, we turn to what we can find, the “truth” sold to us from politicians, pundits, and the status quo. We reiterate the things we hear from others that sound good to us (often what seems “new” or “unique”), that help us bolster what it is we want to think, that help us defend who we think we are. Instead of truth, we unwittingly become purveyors of fear, of desire, of ignorance.

I am not speaking here of “the uneducated.” Academics, scholars, and the so-called “educated” populate “the army of the ignorant” as frequently as any. They even occupy a disproportionate share of its “four-star generals.” But some, a growing number I’d like to think, are also the embodiment of the ideas and practices that will liberate us all. These scholars join the larger body of people from almost all walks of life, many without a “traditional education,” who provide flesh to the bone of idealism—movement.

I don’t pretend to wield all the weapons in the fight against this ignorance, but I know I can work a few. As a historian, one of the reliable tools I can turn to is context. A sense of how what we know of our present is part of a given time and place, both of which are connected to a time before, is, itself, a form of critical analysis. Such a position helps us to question what we may “naturally” think, to investigate it anew—hold it suspended and apart as well as fluid and interconnected. In the end, we don’t question to question, but to better understand. Even if you end up at the same position, it will never be the same conclusion.

So how does this relate to our question?

In the early part of the twentieth century, Mexican nationals began entering the United States in growing numbers as they fled the economic and political dislocation of the Mexican Revolution. Newspapers of the Southwest described this movement as an “invasion,” with one describing the migrants as “a horde of the copper-colored natives of the war-torn republic.” Such accounts are not hard to locate in the historical record, forming as they do the majority of the printed responses to the historical phenomenon.

Despite this clear racialized fear, these “invaders” entered the U.S. legally. The condition of this legality had little to do with them but everything to do with the United States. In this period, the U.S. erected no meaningful barriers to the entrance of immigrants—the one great exception being Chinese, who were formally banned from migration beginning in 1882, bestowing upon those who managed to circumvent this law the distinction of being this nation’s first “illegal immigrant.” Irish, Italian, English, German, and, yes, even Mexican migrants found little impediment to their movement and integration into the national economy. They fulfilled an economic need, and were often believed to be biologically suited to the kinds of labor asked of them.

(In fact, regional business interests often facilitated the migrants’ movement and integration. These interests created mechanisms to advertise lucrative job opportunities to populations of prospective migrant workers. They often paid or provided for their transportation, and met them at the depot with promises of employment or a contractor who would connect them to the need.)

All this would change in the 1920s, as the U.S. moved to create a bureaucratic structure to implement the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the “Quota Act.” The crowning jewel in a crown of racist fear, the law sought to advantage northern European immigrants (English, Scandinavians) at the expense of the “swarthy” immigrant (Italian, Jewish, Greek, etc.). Ideas of racial fitness dictated that the very same migrant from a year or two before must now be considered “illegal.”

However, yet again, Mexicans did not find themselves part of this racist legislation. Migrants in the western hemisphere were exempted from quota in the 1924 act. Though the new bureaucracy of the Border Patrol did create a mechanism for “legal” passage (payment of a fee, proof of literacy and good health), accounts of border enforcement in the era often reveal regulation to entail nothing more than acquiescence to the demand “Show me your hands Mex.” Western capitalism both “protected” Mexican migrants and took advantage of them, securing their exemption from the law to assure their steady movement into the fields, rail yards, and factories of the region.

This “protection” would not survive the Great Depression, though the integration of Mexican labor into the regional economy did not alter course much over the century as a whole. Mexicans found themselves increasingly targeted by both legislation and regulatory practice, exemplified by such postwar round up efforts as “Operation Wetback.”

History and an understanding of context shatters our collective ability to view the distinction of “legal” and “illegal” immigrant as something contained within the actions of the immigrants themselves. These terms carry weight as they are given bureaucratic form—by the receiving nation of the United States. Even in the modern context, it is the U.S. who determines the context of “legal” crossing, creating numerical barriers delineating the “legal” from the “illegal” while massaging an economic system into continuing to find ways to seek their employment, in either case.

This is not to say people do not make their decision to cross the border in a context of awareness of the legality (or illegality) of their actions. But it is to say that is a context not, largely, of their making.

Our ignorance of these realities does more than obscure understanding. Every time we complain about the high cost of lettuce or a tomato, when we expect low service costs in hotels or janitorial work, when we become indifferent to the obliteration of union jobs, we actually help nurture the context.

Indeed, as James Baldwin once wrote of this nation’s majority, “It is their innocence which constitutes the crime.”