Legality, race, and inequality: An interview with Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz (Part I)

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz is an assistant professor of anthropology at Loyola University Chicago. Her 2011 book, Labor and Legality, explores the work and social lives of undocumented busboys in Chicago. Since 2011, Gomberg-Muñoz has been conducting ethnographic research with mixed status couples as they go through the process of legalization; a book manuscript based on that research is in the works.

Ryan Anderson: For decades many of the debates about immigration in the US focus on legality. Politicians and pundits often speak in terms of following — and breaking — the law. But in your work you talk about the “illegalization” of migrant workers. What do you mean by this?

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz: Migration is only “illegal” when laws prevent mobility. Historically, U.S. immigration policies have encouraged migration of workers deemed essential to the U.S. economy, a long-standing practice of labor importation punctuated by deportation and restrictionist campaigns in times of economic downturn. For example, Mexican migrant workers were imported to the United States by the millions in the mid-20th century to help fill labor shortages brought about by World War II and an expanding U.S. economy. Laws were created, negotiated, and adjusted to allow U.S. employers access to these workers; a contract worker program was instituted, and Mexicans and other Latin Americans were exempted from the quotas that limited immigration from elsewhere in the world at the time.

In the 1960s, the laws changed. An explicitly race-based U.S. immigration system was altered to prioritize family reunification, and Mexican workers became subject to numerical restriction for the first time ever. Over the next four decades, widespread demand for Mexican migrant labor persisted, while free trade policies undermined the ability of millions of Mexican farmers and workers to make a living in Mexico. Not surprisingly, numerical restrictions did not ultimately curb the migration of Mexicans to the U.S., but they did make it far more difficult for Mexicans and other Latin Americans to migrate legally. In this context, barriers to lawful immigration have produced unauthorized migration by “illegalizing” long-standing patterns of migration at a time when workers needed them most.

Politicians and pundits who attribute unauthorized migration to migrants’ “law-breaking” alone disconnect migration decisions from the complex social, economic, and political processes in which those decisions take place. This reduction is not merely overly simplistic, it also distorts the relations of power that shape a person’s status in society, renders law invisible and unassailable, and legitimizes inequality by dismissing “lawbreakers’” claims to resources and rights.

An attention to processes that “illegalize” migration, as Nicholas De Genova (2002, 2005) argues, illuminates the role of immigration policy in creating both legality and illegality. Rather than assuming “the law” as a given, then, we can explore policy-making as a dynamic cultural process that is deeply embedded in broader sociopolitical and economic contexts.

RA: At the end of your book Labor and Legality, you explain that undocumented labor isn’t sought after because it’s cheap, but instead because of its “inherent powerlessness”. What does this tell us about the realities of immigration here in the US? Why isn’t this issue of powerlessness a more dominant theme in the ongoing national immigration debate?

RGM: The undocumented busboys who I profile in Labor and Legality are not particularly low-paid relative to other working-class men in the neighborhood, a fact that intrigued me when I did the research. They are also not unique in this respect: A 2002 study by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) found that, while undocumented workers in Chicago earn less than their documented counterparts, most earn above the minimum wage and some even earn middle-class incomes. This appears to contradict the truism that employers favor undocumented workers for certain jobs because they can pay them less than lawful residents or U.S. citizens, and it begs the question: why do employers hire, and even prefer, undocumented workers when there are U.S. citizens who will do the work?

The short answer is that the price of labor is not determined by wages alone. Undocumented workers are more likely than documented workers to be victims of wage theft, denied workman’s compensation claims, and to work in jobs that are seasonal, socially degraded, or otherwise insecure. Lack of documents truncates their occupational mobility, while ineligibility for programs like FAFSA, unemployment benefits, welfare assistance, Medicare, and social security makes them especially dependent upon work. Together, these constraints combine to funnel and keep undocumented people in jobs that U.S. citizens are likely to refuse if they have better options. Of course, most U.S. citizens do not have unfettered access to resources or opportunities, and probationers, parolees, welfare-to-work program participants, guest workers, and lawful immigrants, among others, share some of the vulnerabilities that plague undocumented workers.

Not coincidentally, wages and workplace protections increase for undocumented workers who are members of labor unions. This is an important point, because undocumented workers are often portrayed as “unorganizable,” or powerless to the point that they are either unable or unwilling to join workers’ collectives. This portrayal is belied by the participation of undocumented workers in labor struggles in Chicago, L.A., and elsewhere. Indeed, if I were writing Labor and Legality today, I would not describe undocumented workers as “powerless,” but rather “disempowered,” an important distinction that leaves room for the capacity of people, documented and not, to influence the conditions under which they live and work.

Part II of the interview is here.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

One thought on “Legality, race, and inequality: An interview with Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz (Part I)

  1. “Disempowered” instead of “powerless” is an important insight. Encountered a similar issue while training to work on a telephone crisis line in Japan in the 1980s. There the immigrants were from Africa or South Asia. One of our trainers pointed out the error of assuming that they were helpless victims. Not only were they frequently well-educated, they had to be, she pointed out, extraordinary people to have friends and family at home willing to support their travel to Japan in search of economic opportunities. I mention this experience not only to support the importance of disempowerment as opposed to powerlessness, but also to add that the problems of how to treat immigrants in search of economic opportunity is now a global one and not confined to Europe or North America alone.

    A useful framework for thinking about these issues can be found in Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship, which identifies three broad classes of people involved in these issues: global cosmopolitans, possessors of multiple passports and typically well off, for whom globalization has made the world their oyster; stay-at home middle-class citizens who form the base constituencies for national governments; and a global lumpenproletariat, typically people of color from third-world countries whose “illegality” traps them in precarious employment and, in many parts, of the world subjects them to working conditions like the worst of the early industrial revolution.

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