Illegal People


By David Bacon; Beacon Press, 2008, 261 pp.


In Illegal People, David Bacon draws on fresh research as well as his decades of experience covering labor and immigration issues as an independent journalist. He paints a portrait of a world economy organized as a race to the bottom that keeps wages low, grows the ranks of the impoverished, and creates extreme wealth for an elite few.

The story is familiar, but Bacon’s portrayal of it—drawn with a trained photojournalist’s eye and grounded in the stories of people living in the disaster zones of global capitalism—is fresh and compelling. Bacon examines labor and immigration questions worldwide, but zeros in on Mexico, the home country of more than half of the 12 to 15 million undocumented immigrants now living in the United States. His forceful criticism of U.S. immigration policy and what he considers to be dangerous flaws in the leading reform proposals is informed by his practical understanding of the economic entanglement between the U.S. and Mexico that drives accelerating migration.

Bacon argues that our current situation—in which millions of displaced Mexicans work in the underpaid shadows of the U.S. economy 15 years after NAFTA—is an intended consequence of that treaty which its business friendly architects embraced. They welcomed the creation a pool of vulnerable workers whose labor is underpriced and widely available.

The construction of fortification along the U.S.-Mexico border began in 1995, the year after NAFTA was ratified. These barriers, however, did not prevent a doubling in the flow of displaced farmers and workers from Mexico, who continued to take up undocumented residency and work in the U.S. every year. What they did do was increase the price and difficulty of the crossing and caused the death rate among those crossing the nearly 2,000 miles of the newly "hardened" common border to skyrocket. By August 2008, the number of dead exceeded 4,800.

Because he critiques core features of our political economy and the interdependent nature of U.S labor, immigration, and trade policies, Bacon’s arguments gain force as the rotted economic orthodoxies that have held sway since the Thatcher-Reagan era give way. Indeed Bacon’s description of the serial economic crises that have debilitated Mexico since 1982 are eerily familiar to an American reader in 2009. They are replete with tales of unsustainable debt, credit paralysis, and massive government bailouts of collapsing banks that did little to spur production, but did facilitate the consolidation of capital and the subsequent rise of a heretofore unknown class of the Mexican uber-wealthy.

Illegal People does not offer simple resolutions for pressing immigration, trade, and labor issues. The election of Obama and the defeat of virtually all the House candidates who ran explicitly anti-immigrant campaigns provide a hopeful signal that the tone of the immigration debate will improve. But even if workplace raids are curtailed and reform legislation is put back on the table, many substantive issues remain unsettled.

Bacon perceives danger in grand compromises like the failed 2007 "comprehensive" reform bill that traded "earned" legalization of undocumented immigrants already in the United States for diminishing the role of family ties in making immigrants eligible for residency and citizenship; increased border "defense" and detentions; as well as the dramatic expansion of "guest worker" or "normalization" programs that don’t include provisions for the visa holders to seek citizenship. He depicts a legislative terrain in which conservative and corporate interests control the leadership of both parties and will cede no real ground without a struggle. In response, he advocates deepening coalitions and movements across racial lines and between immigrants, labor, and progressives as the only reliable road to lasting immigration reform.

Bacon’s book decries those on the radical right like Wisconsin Representative James Sensenbrenner, who sponsored some of the most sordid and punitive anti-immigration legislation of recent decades. But during the last immigration debate Bacon was also a prominent critic of proposals to expand the use of guest worker visas. His fierce advocacy helped move much of the labor movement to oppose the bill.

The question of guest or "normalized" workers is sure to be a contentious issue in any future immigration debate and honest reformers will need to grapple with Bacon’s conclusion that limited reform combined with increased militarization of our border, guest worker programs that put us on the road toward labor apartheid, and zero attention to the economic roots of migration is worse than no reform at all. Good folk may disagree about some of these issues, but a careful read of Illegal People will shine a helpful light on the difficult road ahead.

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Ted Lewis directs the human rights programs of Global Exchange and is a long-time democracy and anti-war activist.