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Publication Date

December 2015


This essay situates undocumented migrants in the history of the American revolutionary period. The lawbreaking of both groups produced constructive legal and social change. For example, the masses of American revolutionaries and many of their leading men fought to rid the colonies of hereditary aristocracy. Colonists had come to cherish the proto-meritocracy that had bloomed on colonial shores and rankled at local evidence of aristocratic privilege, like the Crown’s grant of landed estates to absentee English aristocrats.Today’s equivalent hereditary aristocracy is the citizenry of wealthy democracies like the United States. Hereditary citizens use immigration restrictions to reserve the wealth and privilege of rich-world citizenship for themselves and invited guests. The undocumented peacefully challenge this status quo by migrating and remaining in the United States without permission, securing citizenship for their American-born children, and protesting that “no one is illegal.” In these ways the undocumented seize some of the aristocratic privileges of American citizenship and fight for others. For this and other reasons, the undocumented are contemporary heirs to the revolutionary moment — the true tea partiers of the twenty-first century.

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