Dehumanizing the Undocumented


Increasing numbers of undocumented people are entering the United States and other western countries. During a recent France Deux evening newscast, a Haitian who had entered that part of France (Guyane) which is in South America, declared, “I have children. I need to work. Do you want me to steal?”

In European France, a debate has started concerning the “selected immigration” bill introduced by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. The bill would make it easier for scientists and other skilled workers to enter France and make it harder for less skilled workers to do so. The bill would also overturn or reduce the existing rights of immigrants in France; for example, other family members might not be allowed entry.

In the United States, current House and Senate proposals to stem the tide of immigrants and thereby fix the immigration “problem” either criminalize undocumented workers or transform them into temporary workers. This dehumanizes undocumented immigrants and creates a more racist society. Both congressional proposals are flawed and fail to recognize immigrants’ human rights.

The US needs an immigration reform that both takes into account the country’s role in encouraging migration and assumes responsibility for that role by granting immigrants legal status.

The current flows of immigration into the United States are a result of the actions of the US government and US-based corporations. As Midnight Noters and Friends point out, US neoliberal policies open the global economy “to the free entry and exit of foreign capital” which results in the decline of income for most workers and the use of force and repression, especially in some countries where the workers are already impoverished (See: Blau and Moncada note that, “Multinationals such as Wal-Mart, Sears, and Tarrant Appeal Group first set up operations in Mexico, where workers are paid $1.00 per hour, then moved to China, where workers make $.50 an hour, and then to Bangladesh, where workers make $.30 an hour, and then to Mozambique, where they make even less” (Human Rights; Beyond the Liberal Vision, 2005, p. 102). Each time a transnational corporation moves its factories from one country to another, a displaced worker population is created, which is more likely to become transnational itself.

Over half of the immigrants who legally entered the country in 2003 came from just ten countries: Mexico, India, the Philippines, China, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Colombia, Guatemala, and Russia. These are all countries with which the U.S. has had important relationships, either through foreign direct investment or military intervention. One of the main reasons that foreign direct investment increases emigration is that it either forces or promotes migration from the rural areas to the urban areas. People who previously survived as subsistence farmers are drawn to the cities to work, and then eventually enticed or forced to emigrate by changing economic or political conditions. The top three countries sending unauthorized immigrants were Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala; the four principal sources of refugees were Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Cuba. These flows are also due to US military intervention, direct foreign investment by US corporations, and the presence of people from those countries already residing in the United States (Sassen, Globalization and Its Discontents, 1998). It should be noted that neither of the US congressional proposals to reduce illegal immigration suggest changing or limiting US involvement in the global economy or US intervention in foreign countries.

There are at least 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Any plan as to what to do about this special population must take into account its sheer size.

The Sensenbrenner bill–HR 4437–proposes that these 11 million people be converted into felons, and detained or deported. That is simply not realistic and it is not going to happen. Undocumented immigrants make up nearly 15 percent of the workers in a number of industries, including farming and food services. The removal of 15 percent of the workers in any industry would have serious consequences for the economy and for daily life. If there is any group that should be criminalized, it is the employers who exploit and endanger workers and who do not provide a living wage.

The McCain-Kennedy bill proposes a “path to citizenship,” which, although it sounds better than a massive detention or deportation, constructs a treacherous path. Under this plan, undocumented workers can apply for a temporary work visa that is valid for six years. If they qualify, they will receive a work and travel authorization. After six years, they have to reapply in order to qualify for permanent status. At that point, they will have a security background check, pay substantial fines, and must meet English and civics requirements. (The immigration bill recently introduced by Sarkozy would require French language skills.)

The McCain-Kennedy proposal would cause people to live in uncertainty and fear for several years. It also could put immense stress on families. Suppose, for example, the immigrants’ children, who have been attending school, pass this requirement, but the parents, who live in an immigrant enclave, fail to pass the test. Or, as another potential example, a father who works outside the home passes, while his wife, who works in the home fails. This sort of program would deny people the basic human right of being with their families. Alternatively, it would force children who have lived their whole lives in the US to be transplanted to Mexico.

What these reform bills are missing is a recognition that undocumented immigrants are not in the United States simply because they chose to break US law and cross borders. The idea that undocumented immigrants are criminals is a pernicious one; it portrays US citizens as dignified human beings with full political and economic rights, and immigrants as undignified others who do not deserve very much at all. Of course, entering the country without proper documentation is against the law, but so is jaywalking or driving without a license in one’s possession. The question of how serious a crime it is to cross the border without permission or to overstay your tourist visa is highly subjective, and the criminalization of this particular law-breaking behavior is unwarranted. It is telling that the employers who employ undocumented immigrants are also breaking the law, but they have not been portrayed as criminals.

Another portrayal of undocumented immigrants is as people “willing to do jobs that Americans do not want.” This, too, is dehumanizing and fails to hold employers accountable for low wages, bad working conditions, and the lack of benefits. This portrayal also characterizes undocumented workers as lesser beings who have lower standards for their jobs than people with proper documentation. A more appropriate description would be that the lack of proper documentation allows employers to abuse workers, to pay them lower wages, and to keep them in unsafe working conditions.

Take the meatpacking industry, for example, where at least 15 percent of the workforce consists of undocumented workers. Up until the 1990s, employees in the meatpacking industry were primarily US born white and black Americans. Over the past 15 years, the workforce has shifted to being primarily made up of Hispanic immigrants. It is hard to imagine that there have been fundamental changes in the US born population that would suddenly render them unwilling to work in the meatpacking industry. It is less hard to imagine that there have been fundamental changes in the industry itself. The trend in the meatpacking industry has been to close plants where workers had organized into unions and won higher wages and benefits, and open up new plants and recruit a more vulnerable workforce. When Human Rights Watch conducted a study of the meatpacking industry they found that workers who tried to form trade unions and bargain collectively were “spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized for their exercise of the right to freedom of association”

They also found that many companies took advantage of workers’ immigration status and lack of knowledge of their rights in the US to deny them their rights as workers. Overall, they found that the meatpacking industry is characterized by unsafe working conditions, very high rates of injury, and constant abuse from superiors.

Some of the US government proposals being debated suggest extending the guest worker program, which has a long record of violations of labor rights and standards, including blacklists and deportations of workers who protest. Guest worker programs and temporary worker programs create a vulnerable workforce that allows companies to keep wages low and to break union organizing efforts. These programs extract labor from immigrants without regard to their human rights. Temporary workers are prevented from putting down roots and becoming full and equal members of our communities.

These immigration programs are fashioned and implemented to create a reserve army of low-wage laborers without rights. While this sort of labor immigration is extremely beneficial economically for employers which are constantly seeking cheap labor, it tends to hold down and reduce the wages for all workers. Although clearly it is the case that immigrant labor is needed in order to sustain the US economy, immigration reform must be accompanied by labor reform. Both workers who can work legally and workers who are undocumented need a living wage, safe working conditions, and pension and health benefits, and they need to be treated with respect and dignity.

From a human rights perspective, all human beings should have the right to food security, to decent health care, to safe working conditions, to education, to a family, to their cultural identity, and to fight and organize for their rights. The creation of a temporary worker program that permits workers to come to the US only to work for low wages and no benefits, and does not permit them to bring their families, to send their children to school, and to form communities is not a program that should receive our support.

Blau and Moncada comment that “American leaders have always drawn on the exceptionalist argument, which is rooted in the idea that America has a unique mission to inspire and transform the world” (Justice in the United States; Human Rights and the US Constitution, 2006, p. 61). We need to advance another exceptionalist argument: that the national borders of the US and other western countries should be open to people who are without rights in their own countries in part because of the neoliberal economic and military interventionist policies and practices of western countries. As the SSF website states, many of the problems people in other countries face “were created by colonialism and capitalism, and aggravated by globalization.” This new kind of “exceptionalism” would mean that national sovereignty in terms of setting rules about borders should be limited given the history of the United States, France, Spain, Portugal and other western countries. The US, for example, has a history of slavery, genocide, and internment where African-Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans are concerned, in addition to its history of colonial acquisitions in the Pacific Ocean, and its long history of interventions in Latin America. An alternative term to exceptionalism would be “reparations” but one notable shortcoming with the use of this term is that it tends to shift attention from the political and economic systems which created the problems to the recipients of the reparations and thus tends to be divisive for many people.

This is not to say that there is not an issue of border security. There is. As much as the US and other western countries are responsible for the hatred which Islamic terrorists have for us because of the ongoing efforts to maintain some control over oil in the Middle East and for other reasons, the terrorist groups are sending their warriors to western countries to inflict harm on civilians. New York, London, Madrid and other locations have already been attacked by terrorists. There is a need for defense systems against those who would smuggle in through ports or land borders dirty bombs, chemical or biological weapons or hydrogen bombs. Fences will not keep terrorists or other well-organized groups out; they can fly planes over them or dig tunnels under them.

But poor immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, or other countries in the Global South that walk across deserts, swim across rivers, or climb over fences are a different population. They have families, they need jobs, and they do not want to steal. Very few of them, if any, are terrorists. We do ourselves as well as the immigrants an incredible disservice if we allow western governments and their corporate sponsors to portray them as inferior and inhuman. We must go on record as being against all efforts to denigrate undocumented immigrants.

Migration is a phenomenon that affects people both in sending and receiving states, and therefore must be part of an international forum, an international and borderless movement. Consequently, discussions about migration should not be restricted nor controlled by States, but by civil societies where “membership” would mean different transnational solidarities such as social movement global networks (and not those from Multinational Corporations, International Agencies and Banks).

The current US and French immigration proposals are a threat to human rights and promise to create a more racist society. In France, the far right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has announced that he will compete with Sarkozy in the 2007 Presidential election. Le Pen, who has been found guilty of inciting racial hatred by telling a newspaper in 2003 that Muslims would someday run France and cause fear and trembling among the non-Muslim population, may not draw off enough votes from Sarkozy in the Presidential election to keep him out of office. If Sarkozy wins the election, we can expect a continuation of what Bourdieu called the Neoliberal Utopia (Becoming a Reality) of Unlimited Exploitation–a continuation of state and corporate policies that keep reducing labor costs and withdrawing the state from a number of sectors of social life for which it was previously responsible such as social housing, public service broadcasting, schools and hospitals (Acts of Resistance, 1998, pp. 2, 95).

If we ask ourselves why undocumented workers are so easily dehumanized in the US, we can remind ourselves of the legacy of racism of this country. Although undocumented workers are of many colors and creeds, and, although more than half of the undocumented workers in the US are not from Mexico, and about a quarter are not even from Latin America, the image that is most often portrayed in the media of an undocumented worker is that of a brown person. By criminalizing and dehumanizing undocumented workers, we are creating a society in which all brown people will be seen as potential criminals, as not worthy of the same rights as other Americans. In the US, just as the post 9-11 legislation in the US made it almost a crime to look like an Arab, the current US proposals could make it almost a crime to look Mexican.

Tanya Golash-Boza is an Assistant Professor Department of Sociology and Program in American Studies at the University of Kansas.

Douglas A. Parker is a professor of Sociology at Cal State University at Long Beach. Both are members of Sociologists Without Borders.

They can be reached at: