“Illegals” of the World Unite?

– an interview with David Bacon
Against the Current, July/August 2009

THIS INTERVIEW WAS conducted on April 10, 2009 by Star Murray and Charles Williams on behalf of the Against the Current editorial board. Photojournalist David Bacon spent 20 years as a labor organizer and immigrant rights activist. He hosts a show on KPFA-FM in Berkeley, CA, and his writing and photographs are online at http://dbacon.igc.org/. His book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants was published by Beacon Press in 2008.

ATC: Why don’t we start with the title of the book?

David Bacon: Well, I debated with the publisher a lot about it. I knew it was going to be kind of a controversial title, because I’ve been an immigrant rights activist for over 30 years and all that time we’ve been trying to get people to say “undocumented people” instead of “illegal aliens.” And the reason for it is a very good one, which is that the word “illegal” is used to demonize people and to excuse denial of rights and second-class social status.

So putting the word illegal in the title, especially saying “illegal people,” I anticipated that people would say “Well, okay, you’re doing what you have tried to get people not to do.” The reason I did so is because writing the book made me really think more concretely about where illegality comes from, and there is a part of the book that traces out the development of the social category.

It doesn’t really have much to do with the law. It has to do with the creation of a social category for people who are denied equality with those who live in the community around them, and who don’t have the same set of rights and don’t have the same social and political and legal status.

So the book traces this history all the way back to the origins of this country and the colonization of North America, and specifically to slavery. Slavery established the idea that the society that was created here was going to be divided, that people were going to be divided between those that had rights and those who had no rights.

The purpose of this was economic really. The labor of slaves was what was desired by slave holders, and the whole system was built and developed in order to allow for the maximum extraction of that labor. And then that inequality got not only written into the Constitution and into law, but applied to other people too. There were simultaneous debates in the Americas about the status of indigenous people.

What I’m trying to say is that illegality is real. It’s a real status of people. And that it has an economic function, and this system creates illegality for very specific reasons. Today, in a globalized world, we have the use of neoliberal economic reforms, including free trade treaties, that in countries like Mexico displace people and send them into motion, and then those people are forced to come to the United States looking for work and survival and, at the same time, are forced into a social category, illegality, which already existed before they get here.

Basically the book’s argument in the end is that this is obviously a very brutal system, and if we don’t like illegality we have to change the social reality. It’s not enough to just say “Well, let’s not demonize people by not calling them illegals and instead using the word undocumented.” I believe very strongly that we should use the term “undocumented people,” but we have to face the fact that undoing illegality requires a social movement and social struggle, and we have to be willing to do that.

ATC: As you discuss in your book, there have also been programs that create a legal position for immigrants, but again with the intention of establishing a system of labor exploitation. So could you talk a little bit about the Bracero program and the H-2 visa system and the purposes behind those programs?

DB: Well, the Bracero program and the H-2 visas are the use of our immigration laws as a labor supply system for employers, a very overt one. Both the Bracero program and H-2A and H-2B visas basically say people can come to the United States to work, but only to work. If you’re not working you have to leave. And in some cases the way in which people get that work and come and go in the United States is very systematized and organized.

Under the Bracero program people were actually given written contracts when they were still in Mexico, and when they crossed the border they were assembled in big barns and fumigated and then given contracts, and they could stay only as long as the contract lasted. And in order to stay any longer they had to get a new contract to work for another grower.

The H-2A and H-2B visas work a little bit differently, but the purpose is identical, which is to supply labor to agricultural and nonagricultural employers. They allow employers to recruit labor outside the United States, and then people are brought into the country in an immigration status which basically allows employers to exploit their labor at very low wages and to impose pretty awful working conditions.

The Bracero program lasted from 1942 to 1964, and the end of the program in 1964 was a victory of the Chicano civil rights movement, of people like Ernesto Galarza and Bert Corona and Cesar Chavez, who over many years of struggle finally convinced Congress to end the program.

In 1965, Congress passed another immigration bill that was in large part the product of the ideas of those people who had fought against the Bracero program. This set up the system of family preferences. The people who lived in the United States could petition for family members living in other countries and bring them here under the family reunification system.

So it’s true that everybody who moves to the United States pretty much has to work. In fact, we need to make sure in the current debate around immigration that people’s right to work is protected and that we don’t start denying people the right to work because of their immigration status, like employer sanctions. But the ideas of Corona and Galarza were that we needed to set up a system that was not controlled or manipulated by employers for the purpose of supplying labor.

That’s still basically the problem that we are debating around immigration policy today: “Who should it benefit?”

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