Illegal People: A Review

By Duane Campbell

On May 16, 2008, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jiminez, 17 years old and pregnant, another undocumented worker in the U.S., died of heat stroke. Maria and her husband were working in the fields near Stockton, California when she collapsed in the 105 degree heat. She was one of at least six workers to die this summer from heat stroke in California’s fields.

David Bacon is a well known labor journalist whose new book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon, 2008) helps us to understand the economic processes and human tragedies which drives workers to migrate and some to die.

Through interviews and on-the-spot reporting from both impoverished communities abroad and U.S. immigrant workplaces and neighborhoods, Bacon shows how the United States’ trade and economic policy creates conditions to displace communities and set migration into motion.

In developing countries such as Mexico and Guatemala, economic restructuring plans imposed by the International Monetary Fund and trade policies of NAFTA , FTAA, and GATT have led to unemployment rates of over 25% producing a migration to the U.S. In the current era, the economic forces of global neo-liberal capitalism, are unrestrained by governments. In Mexico neo-liberal policies have devastated the countryside. Federal subsidies for corn, sugar and produce were ended and development projects stopped. The policies of the governments in Mexico and Central America have driven thousands off of their lands, many come to the U.S. looking for work. The impoverishment of the vast majority, in pursuit of profit for the minority, has pushed millions to migrate in search of food, and employment. Then, after creating migration, we make the immigrant worker “illegal” in order to provide more profits for corporations. Bacon argues, “In the global economy, people are displaced because the economies of their countries of origin are transformed, to enable corporations and national elites to transfer wealth out” (p. 69). Global capitalism produces global migration and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Illegal People provides honest, detailed and vivid accounts of how migration works, who it exploits, its effect on labor, and the crisis produced in both the sending and the receiving countries.

Readers of this interesting book will learn some economics and come to understand trade policy. In chapter three: Displacement and Migration, Bacon describes in concrete detail how NAFTA and neo-liberalism produced migration. NAFTA increased employment and exploitation in the low wage Maquiladora sector along the U.S. Mexican border. The Mexican agricultural sector has suffered a steady loss of jobs and today Mexico must even import corn to feed its people. Millions come to the U.S. driven out by increasing poverty and unemployment in their home countries. Poverty drives people to migrate, a poverty created and recreated by capitalism. NAFTA is just the policy description of a system where capital is free to move from country to country in search of profits while workers are not free to move from country to country in search of jobs or better wages. That is in part why Democratic Socialists of America has a Renegotiate NAFTA petition at

Illegal People draws upon the author’s extensive history in reporting on labor and the immigration issues to describe several of the nuances of migration which are missed by those not engaged in the struggle; the role of indigenous people from areas such as Oaxaca, and several of the complex divisions on immigration policy within U.S. major unions (Chapter 5). He argues that “labor support for immigrant rights was not based upon ideology or morality , but on pragmatic considerations. Immigrants today are the backbone of organizing drives from the Smithfield pork plant in North Carolina, to Houston janitors and Cintas industrial laundry workers“ (p. 156). I was pleased to find that Bacon included the important role of migration from the Philippines and the union leadership of friends of mine such as Philip Vera Cruz in Chapter 7 (“Illegal People or Illegal Work?”).

Times are tough for working people, particularly for the approximately 12 million immigrants among us. The U.S. is experiencing a recession and the unemployment rate reached 5.7 % in July. As long as we have a rich country in the North, and severe poverty and repression of indigenous communities and labor in Latin America . Africa and Asia, people are going to flee looking for work to feed their families, just as Germans, Greeks, Italians, Jews, Irish, Poles, and Russians did from 1840 -1920. The wealthy on both sides of the border have benefited from NAFTA, and working people on both sides of the border have suffered.

Unless you find some way to end capitalist expansion, migration will continue. The critical issues are the terms and conditions of migration and how will migration effect the current labor unions and labor markets. We need to understand the mechanisms and problems of this system. Illegal People puts a human face on the debates over immigration. Activists need to understand the role of IRCA (1986), of the Bracero Program, and of H2A workers, among others because these programs are used as debating points in the current controversies.

Progressive movements have a common interest in resisting the current campaigns of racism and terror launched against immigrant communities. We have a lot to gain from union solidarity and building a united workers movement. And we have a lot to lose from the divisive and oppressive police state tactics of the Immigration Service and the Border Patrol. The militarization of the border has caused hundreds more deaths of innocents, seeking to feed their families, and no real reduction in immigration. The policy has failed. The details of the policy debate are important, but first we need to understand “how globalization creates migration and criminalizes immigrants.”

Barbara Ehrenreich says: “Illegal People documents how undocumented workers have become the world’s most exploited workforce–subject to raids and arrests, forced to work at low pay and under miserable conditions, and prevented from organizing on their own behalf. “ A good recommendation.

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One Response

  1. […] on this blog, Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin’s Solidarity Divided and David Bacon’s Illegal People. Both are […]

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