Joseph Nevins’ Dying to Live packs a many-sided, moving, and uncompromising account of the development of U.S. immigration and its associated politics into a short and readable book. Nevins backs “movements fighting to tear down walls.” Rather than simply rebutting the myths of the anti-immigrant Right on economics, crime, etc., his book offers those movements a powerful challenge to the principles of “nation-statism” that frame mainstream discussion of immigration.
Woven into the analysis is the heartbreaking story of Julio Cesar Gallegos, who died crossing the border in 1998. Gallegos first crossed in 1993, before president Clinton implemented Operation Gatekeeper. Five years later, he faced a far more perilous crossing in which hundreds died every year, mostly from the heat. Though undocumented, Gallegos was actually eligible for legalization had he been able to afford the fees, an opportunity delayed by the poverty wages he earned in a Los Angeles factory.
He was returning to his wife and children in LA, having visited family in Juchipila, Zacatecas. He made five attempts to re-cross in the San Diego area before resorting to a desert smuggler. His gruesome death (his body was mummified and his eyes destroyed by the heat), unlike most others of its kind, attracted national media attention. Yet the coverage did not blame the obvious factors—border militarization, restrictive legalization rules, exploitation—but instead scapegoated smugglers, for whom the Los Angeles Times prescribed life imprisonment or the death penalty. Ironically the two coyotes leading Gallegos’ group died next to him.
Nevins explains this tragedy as “the outgrowth of many factors, contingent and structural, incidental and historical.” The Imperial Valley (IV—where Gallegos died) and Los Angeles (where he was headed) both developed out of native genocide and expansionist conquest. This background provided the starting point for the modern racism and nativism that have facilitated dizzying growth alongside the rule of a narrow circle of wealth. Epic labor battles in the IV fields of the 1930s and 1960s receded in ultimate defeat before employers, police, and vigilantes, leaving unreconstructed class despotism.
Employer arrogance and nativist hostility to these movements from below were fueled by the region’s racist legacy. Los Angeles’ more-institutionalized labor movement did not erase rigid patterns of segregation in employment and housing. The LA neighborhood of Boyle Heights, where Gallegos and his wife lived, had an impressive history of diversity and equality in the 1940s. But this also reflected the exclusion of Blacks, Mexicans, and Jews from other areas.
The central and most fascinating “historical factor” Nevins traces is the border’s evolution “from the time of the US-Mexico War to the present…from a mere line on a map, to a powerful divide and associated set of practices of inclusion and exclusion.” Mainstream immigration debate assumes exclusionary national borders to be natural, just, and class-neutral. But before the 1870s, federal immigration restrictions virtually did not exist. A survey of international legal opinion on the eve of the First World War found no consensus that governments even had the right to prevent foreigners from entering their territories. Nevins explains how restrictive law and militarized enforcement became “largely uncontroversial” through a decades-long process of border pacification, class warfare by deportation, and electoral demagoguery. Media portrayals of an “out of control” border led to sustained public concern and a permanent “border war” by the 1970s.
These practices of selective exclusion grew alongside cross-border ties going back centuries, and deepening with ongoing economic dynamism. In the Chapter “Juchipila, MexUSA,” Nevins explores the ways immigration is synthesizing authentically “transnational” and “translocal” lives, lifestyles, and culture. But he warns against “romanticizing Juchipila…as a social space that transcends the U.S.-Mexico boundary. The boundary is very much present.” In the context of “uneven distribution of power and resources,” transnationalism is bound up with an apartheid labor system, with low Mexican wages enforced on both sides by fear. More than half of U.S. union drives involving unauthorized migrants also involve employer threats to call immigration authorities. Globalization under this system ruins traditional livelihoods in Juchipila and ensures that they can only be replaced north of the border.
At the broadest level, Nevins discusses how “the rise of European imperialism in the sixteenth century” began the acceleration of global inequality. Partially countervailing trends (represented in Mexico by national industrialization and post-Revolutionary land reform) have eroded, giving rise to “global apartheid,” in which some people can freely travel and access resources, while others are forced to live in deprived areas or risk their lives crossing boundaries. For Nevins, the U.S.-Mexico border exemplifies “antagonistic relationships between the so-called first and third worlds.” Six thousand African immigrants died swimming to the Canary Islands in 2006, and hundreds more perished in the Mona Passage, fleeing shantytowns in the Dominican Republic (DR). Meanwhile the DR builds exclusive beach resorts catering to the global glitterati, including Julio Iglesias and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
By counterposing the growth of transnational ties to the growth of global apartheid, enforced by border and related “nation-statist” practices, Nevins makes an eloquent and fundamental case against immigration restrictions as such. Only by moving beyond them will we have a world where billions of people like Julio Gallegos are not excluded from the right “to live…in the full sense of the word.”
Moving photographs by Mizue Aizeki add immediacy and layers of meaning. While Nevins does not focus on immigrants’ political struggles, Aizeki’s contributions provide some feel for these.