The Crimes of Our Time

Memory and Sandra live in Harare, but every six weeks they travel together to Johannesburg. The bus route they travel is a world unto itself, and its buses are mobile factories, banks, newsrooms and churches to the women who take them. In Jo’burg, Memory and Sandra carry coolers full of hand-embroidered t-shirts and aprons to wealthy tourist districts and sleep in shifts in a room they share with 12 other women. During the day, beat cops shake them down and local people curse them. At night, people break into their and neighboring rooms to plunder goods and cash. They send what they manage to save home in stacks of South African Rand (one of three currencies still in use in Zimbabwe) with the cross-border bus driver. They keep their heads down and whisper with other fellow migrants about the chances of another wave of anti-foreigner rioting, like the township attacks in 2008 in which 62 people were murdered.

According to South African law, Memory and Sandra have every right to live and work in South Africa on short-term visas. But according to a large and growing number of South Africans, they are illegal. And in the world today, “illegal” immigrants – whether or not they are actually legally authorized to migrate, live and work in the societies where they live – live in fear. On December 16, 2009, Human Rights Watch published a round-up of its yearlong reporting on violations of migrants’ human rights, demonstrating that human rights violations against men, women and children migrants occurred in every region of the world.  According to the report, “restrictive and xenophobic immigration policies, inadequate labor protections, and barriers to justice mechanisms translate into human rights abuses with little hope of redress.”

The International Organization of Migration numbers undocumented persons at around 30 million globally, but in reality, we can assume the numbers are much higher than this. Often, people who migrate legally across borders or within their own countries experience de facto “illegality” – facing the same risks and restrictions that undocumented people face. In the course of a single migration life, a person can move in and out of status, undocumented at one time and documented in another. Within a single family, different family members can be of different status. Countries and groups of countries have myriad ways of controlling borders and migration, and complex hierarchies of rights and belonging. And yet, the global narrative about migration is increasingly simplistic and unified: that there are people who have a “right” to be somewhere and outsiders who are swooping in to snatch opportunities and social services.

There are more migrants in the world than at any other time, but the percentage of people that move across international borders has held steady for decades. What’s really changing is who migrates, why and how they migrate, and how their new societies view and use them. More and more migrants are women, undocumented, and working low-skilled jobs in factories or private homes.

A quick glance at countries miles and oceans apart reveals how diverse and intransigent the issue of so-called illegal migration is today.

In China today, some 300 million Chinese citizens have migrated internally – more migrants than there are in the rest of the world combined – but an archaic household registration system has rendered these migrants undocumented in their own country, with limited access to housing, education, and formal employment. China’s unparalleled economic growth has also drawn international immigrants, with visible Arab, Filipino, Korean, Persian, South Asian, and West African communities, as well as a growing North American and European presence in a number of its expanding industries; July 2009 clashes with its undocumented Igbo Nigerian population have shed public light on the challenges posed by a long-term undocumented population vulnerable to abuse and harassment and existing on the fringe of society.

Italy has drawn and sustained a large population of undocumented Africans—and increasingly, of Latin Americans—into seasonal farm labor, who have on one hand been blamed for criminality in the region, and on the other hand presented as victims of mafia-sponsored trafficking. The harsh conditions and culture of violence surrounding undocumented migrants exploded onto front pages after a series of riots in Calabria in January of this year, and Italy has since come under fire for an array of aggressive policies toward would-be immigrants, ranging from interceptions at sea to harsh detention and fine policies.

Although Israel can be understood as an immigrant nation, the majority of its immigrants since its founding are not immigrants at all, but rather members of the Jewish nation returning to automatic citizenship; it has never formulated a policy toward non-Jewish immigrants. As such, its large, long-term population of non-Jewish economic migrants from Latin America, the Philippines, Asia and Eastern Europe are automatically undocumented. Walking the fine line between its status as a high-security state amidst an ethnic, national, and religious conflict with its non-Jewish indigenous residents and as a democratic, economically dynamic commercial center in the Middle East, Israel has struggled to address the housing, security, schooling, and electoral challenges posed by a long-term undocumented population.

The United States is the number one global recipient of international migrants, and has the largest undocumented population in the world, estimated at nearly 12 million. Traditionally, immigration reform has meant restriction of immigrants rights and specific efforts to criminalize undocumented migrants. Recent public debates over harsh policies in Arizona and on the federal level demonstrate a growing move to institutionalize racial profiling and render all undocumented immigrants “major criminals” in line with class A felons.

A person without papers lives as a part of society without being a member of that society. He is denied not only the rights to move freely in that society and to access its services and opportunities, but also the peace of mind that he will not be offending anyone simply by existing. In countless ways—through unjust laws, hostile societies, stereotypical or racist media narratives, inaccessible institutions—an undocumented person is denied personhood. This is true of every society in the world today.

What is equally true is that societies all over the world rely on the low-cost labor of these very people. Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture claimed in 2010 that food would cost three, even four times as much as it presently does without undocumented labor.1 In Chinese cities, migrant workers not only comprise nearly all domestic labor, they are also the construction workers driving the infrastructure-based economic miracle of China’s eight-percent annual growth rate. Unauthorized immigrants are the caregivers and nurses that care for the elderly and dying in aging societies in the industrialized West, and enable women to earn the necessary second household income in cities throughout the world.

Not only do a growing number of societies rely on low-cost, marginalized labor in the world, a growing number of social narratives treat those same immigrants as criminals. If undocumented immigrants are criminals, then we may all be complicit in their crime.

January 25, 2011

frontispiece: Detail of Brownsville, Texas border fence (Wikicommons)

1. Roger Simon. “Exclusive: Tom Vilsack Offered to Resign Over Shirley Sherrod,” (Aug. 25, 2010):

Africa, China, Immigration, Labor, Latin America, South Africa, United States, Xenophobia, Zimbabwe