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.