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Esther Pereyra Rubalcaba (L) kisses her daughter Patricia through the wall separating the US and the Mexican territories in Tijuana, Mexico, on August 19, 1997. Photo: Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images
Esther Pereyra Rubalcaba (L) kisses her daughter Patricia through the wall separating the US and the Mexican territories in Tijuana, Mexico, on August 19, 1997. (Photo: Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images)

Two Books to End Your Circular Arguments About Immigration

Two Books to End Your Circular Arguments About Immigration

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Do you read the comments? I read the comments. I read them after articles on immigration specifically, because the arguments tend to trickle down to the same thing and I like thinking about patterns and semantics. With immigration, you can almost do a countdown—six or seven comments in, a common disagreement appears: are Native Americans original inhabitants or immigrants? The irate will say that Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait and so they are immigrants, and this is one way of saying the country doesn’t belong to them, as well as the country belongs to those who took possession of it.

Two books I read this month promise to take your arguments from the general to the specific: Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move by Reece Jones (a history of borders, focusing among others on the US-Mexico border, Bangladesh, and Palestine) and Chasing the Harvest (an oral history of migrant workers in California agriculture). Each provide a wholly focused view on immigration.


The United States is one of a few countries whose immigration philosophy is jus solis or right of land, which means that if you spend enough time on U.S. territory you have a right to citizenship. But who has that right and if it matters how they entered is our all-consuming question.

In Violent Borders, Jones provides plenty of examples of how these semantic arguments lead to inequality, isolation, racism, and institutional loss of liberty for entire groups of people. This is the case of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar. As recently as 1982, Myanmar (then Burma) passed a law granting citizenship to specific ethnic groups. It did not include Muslims and so, though the Rohingya never moved an inch, they became foreigners in their own land stripped of rights of labor, travel and representation in government. Myanmar claims the Rohingya immigrated from Bangladesh. Bangladesh argues the Rohingya did not originate there. The Rohingya are stateless and in limbo. They cannot even claim refugee status in another country, because having no state, they cannot prove their origin.


If this doesn’t slightly remind you of the migrants of California, then your next read needs to be Chasing the Harvest (edited by Gabriel Thompson). This book is moving, informative, and quite a page-turner. It is full of joy and pathos with narrators that take you from love of land and family to the shocking circumstance of modern-day labor camps.

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Coachella (yes, that Coachella, the one teeming with off-duty models wearing flower crowns) is where one narrator from Chasing the Harvest saw migrant grape workers living in the direst of conditions—their only water source a canal contaminated with pesticide. Jose Saldivar told Gabriel Thompson:

There was a family that came from Mexicali, a father and his two sons. We met working in the fields, in an orange orchard. We spoke, and the man asked me, “Can I stay out here in the orchard? Will there be any problem?” He had nowhere else to go. I said, “No, there shouldn’t be a problem as long as you don’t make any problems.” He came with a pickup, and he slept there in the camper and cooked his food outside. He and his sons came everyday to the canal to wash themselves. One day the man started to itch badly. He got sick and developed a rash. The bosses sent him to a hospital in San Diego, and in San Diego the man died. His body was completely covered in blisters and sores. I know this because his sons came back and told me what had happened. And they never knew what chemical it was that affected him.

This is not the worst of stories in Chasing the Harvest. These two books provide a direct look at borders and the people who borders wreak havoc upon, who are — in the words of another migrant worker from Chasing the Harvest, Roberto Valdez — the bodies who “harvest the lemons you use to make the lemonade you’re now drinking. The strawberries that your children eat, we cut them. The grapes that you see in the markets, we cut them. We’re dying out there in the fields.”

In Violent Borders, Jones asks: “Are humans defined primarily by our attachments to place or by movement? One way of thinking about humanity is to see humans as a sedentary species with deep ancestral connections to homelands[…] However, movement is also a critical part of humanity and the modern condition.” The conflict between desire for movement and ownership over place is at the core of these two important books.

Let me return to comment threads. Though juvenile, they are important because of semantics: the philosophical base of who has a right to be in a country and make a life comes down to a poetic question.

While the U.S. believes in jus solis, most of the world believes in jus sanguinis, or right of blood, which means that only those who mix their blood with the original inhabitants can call themselves citizens. Nationalism in America wants to flirt with an ethnic definition of citizenship — in other words, it envisions an America that believes in jus sanguinis — but it doesn’t quite come off, and here’s why: for America to switch to jus sanguinis, it would imply that any person who did not mix blood with the original inhabitants (i.e. Native Americans  —  who, though they crossed the Bering Strait, are the original inhabitants) would become a foreign national. You would become, as the Rohingya, stateless, and in limbo.


The writer appeared in conversation with Reece Jones at City Lights Bookstore on April 12. ‘Violent Borders’ is out now from Verso Books. ‘Chasing the Harvest’ is available this May from Voice of Witness, a San Francisco oral history project started by Dave Eggers.

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