Illegal People by David Bacon
This was the last book I needed to read for the political science class that has been providing most of my nonfiction diet recently. As the semester winds down, I have to say–I cannot wait to take an English class next semester. I’ve been enjoying it, but it’s time to return to my forté.
In Illegal People, David Bacon, a photojournalist and immigrant rights activist, explores the various conditions that produce immigration as we now know it–a cycle that rotates between exploitative economic policy, anti-union employers, and poor economic and social conditions at home for many immigrants. It’s split up into eight chapters that can, essentially, stand alone. Bacon makes and illustrates his point fairly early on, making the book mostly a compilation of findings, stories, and data about immigration.
Bacon does two wonderful things with Illegal People. He offers a unifying solution to the current debate on immigration, and neatly pins down the cyclical cause of immigration. I was horrified to learn of not only the conditions some immigrants lived in, but the conditions that they came from. Some immigrants aren’t afraid to strike for their rights in the United States because, at home, striking would get them shot. Bacon’s solution involves unifying discriminated groups together, especially African-Americans and immigrants.
The bulk of Bacon’s (well placed) ire is a deregulated free market, where companies treat their migrant labor like animals, and advocates for a deregulated free market ignore the connection between foreign trade policy and immigration. Bacon does best when he documents the horrifying conditions of people forced out of their country to put food on the table and lays out the business reasons pro-free market politicians write and push anti-immigration bills and laws. Bacon has plenty of ammunition, and he lays it out with great relish and a smoldering rage.
As you might imagine, this is not a balanced book. This is an issue Bacon has devoted decades to, and his righteous anger shines through. While, as a liberal, I’m horrified at the destruction in the deregulated free market’s wake, I did see that Bacon’s vehemence leaves no room for the other side. (To be fair, there is little they can say for themselves.) Even the language is telling–pro-immigrant individuals “argue” and “speak”, while anti-immigrant individuals “boast”. By the end of the book, you’re certainly on Bacon’s side, but it’s a little difficult to look at things objectively from Bacon’s perspective. This is not a book to read if you want a nuanced, balanced take on immigration, but if you don’t know much about the issue, it’s a brutal, needed wake-up call.
For me, the biggest problem I had with Illegal People was Bacon’s style and pacing. He’s a prolific journalist, and that definitely shines through in the writing. Each chapter could stand alone as an article, and while I was reading this, I was convinced this was a series of collected articles. It is not. This means that the pacing is often halting. When Bacon begins describing the older cycles of immigration starting from the late 1800s towards the end of the book, I was astounded that he didn’t start with that history–Bacon’s entire book is about putting current immigration in context. Certainly, his focus is more on Latino immigrants, but it was such an odd note that really rubbed me the wrong way. The ratio of personal stories of immigrants to political debate and analysis was skewed in every chapter. While I found the stories quite affecting, it’s hard to read pages of economy and labor policy that doesn’t illustrate with the compelling stories of the immigrants themselves.
Bottom line: While a much needed wake up call concerning immigration in America, David Bacon’s very pro-immigrant Illegal People reads much more like a compilation of articles on the subject rather than a coherent book on the subject.
I bought this book from my college bookstore.