Review: Illegal People

Michele Wucker’s review of David Bacon’s excellent book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Immigration and Criminalizes Immigrants, misses the mark. Wucker is put off by Bacon’s supposed emphasis on “bad apple” employers. In fact, Bacon’s book argues compellingly that the problem with the American immigration system isn’t bad-apple employers (although there are certainly many of them); the problem is structural. And Bacon’s book shows that it’s a structure the United States has created that leads directly to the abuses Bacon highlights. Reading this book as merely a condemnation of bad corporations misses the real insights the book has to offer.

What Bacon’s book does better than anything I have read before is to explain the cycle of that structure and how it leads inevitably to the abuses he catalogues. He starts at the beginning of the cycle — the forces in Mexico and other nations that drive people northward from the homes they love. Bacon often focuses on Oaxaca and the agricultural life, rich in tradition and culture, if not money, that had been possible for many before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He describes the breakdown of that life that NAFTA pushed into place, making small farming in rural Mexico impossible. After the NAFTA “reforms,” longtime peasant farmers found that there was literally no market for their product, and there was thus no possibility for earning income in their home communities.

Bacon also describes in compelling terms the structures in place in the United States that serve to oppress people as workers once they arrive in the United States, driven from their homes. One of Bacon’s most persuasive sections describes the guestworker programs in existence in the United States. He exposes these programs as structurally exploitative — not merely the product of a few bad employers. He also demonstrates the powerful political forces — in government and business — that have used enforcement against vulnerable immigrants in efforts to force the nation to accept that immigration reform must take the shape of large-scale guestworker programs. He shows how enforcement, in the form of large and small-scale immigration raids — is being used for the most nefarious political purposes: to destroy worker-organizing efforts and to move forward a political agenda toward guestworker programs at the expense of a just immigration reform.

A reading of this book that contends that Bacon focuses on “bad apple” employers misses the real contributions of this book. There are millions of employers, some better, some worse. But, whether or not they involve bad apple employers, guestworker programs are inherently abusive. Our current immigration system is, too. Bacon’s book explains why, from beginning to end. He also points us to a future of hope — where those who do the hard work of living are able to be full participants in our social and political life.

Mary Bauer is the Director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the author of Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States. She is also a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.