Title: Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America
Author: Mae Ngai
Categories: Immigration, Citizenship, Legal History, National Sovereignty, Mexican, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Borders
Place: The American Southwest
Time Period: 1924-1965
Mae Ngai writes at the intersection of legal history and immigration history by examining American immigration policy during the national quotas system in place between 1924 and 1965. Ngai argues that during this period policy increasingly revolved around and helped to constitute a new category of non-citizen: the illegal alien. She argues that the creation of this legal and political subject was deeply steeped in a process of race-making and a changing conception of the nation-state based on stricter enforcement of national sovereignty.
Ngai's narrative begins with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act in 1924, which ended a period of largely laissez-faire immigration policies (outside of Asian immigration) and instead created a system of national quotas for all countries outside the western hemisphere. This created two tracks of immigration: defining Europeans on the basis of nation and non-Europeans on the basis of race. The post-World War I period also witnessed a growing emphasis on national sovereignty and controlling and regulating national borders. This helps point to a central contradiction: Mexicans were legally defined as white for the purposes of immigration, but growing administrative and bureaucratic hurdles and restrictions based on borders (including rising deportations) cast Mexicans as a race apart and the quintessential "illegal alien." The conflation of race and legal status was further compounded in the 1940s and 1950s with the rise of the bracero program and its shadow, unofficial counterpart of the wetback program. By allowing some Mexicans limited entry for work but not citizenship (via the bracero program) and launching a campaign against unofficial and undocumented Mexican laborers ("Operation Wetback"), Mexicans were more and more seen as illegal aliens.
Ngai expands beyond Mexican immigrants to note how Filipinos, Japanese, and Chinese were also defined in exclusionary, racialized terms. Filipinos presented a thorny problem for restrictionists, as they were colonial subjects who were often Christian and Americanized. Hence, they came to castigate Filipinos as racially other and sexually threatening (much like blacks), while simultaneously lobbying for Philippine independence so they could be expelled. In the case of the Japanese, Ngai examines loyalty tests and voluntary renunciation of US citizenship in 1940s internment camps. She complicates the picture of Japanese victimhood by trying to give them more agency in making both pragmatic or ideological decisions to renounce their American citizenship. In the post-war period, meanwhile, the "paper son" campaign (influenced by anti-communism) was launched to find illegal Chinese residents who claimed they had been born in the US. Show trials often publicly linked all Chinese-Americans as political enemies and non-citizens. Finally, Ngai launches a revisionist critique against the 1965 Hart-Celler Act that is often championed as a triumph of liberal progressivism and linked to the Civil Rights movement. Instead, Ngai points out that by leaving the quota system intact (and simply making it an even system throughout all countries), it reinforced the foundation of restriction, territoriality, and rigid border controls that reified the central place of the "illegal alien" as an oppositional entity.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Illegal immigration as central problem in 20th century US immigration policy
- Restrictive immigration policies help create a new "illegal alien" as a legal and political subject between 1924-1965
- European's defined by nation, non-Europeans by race
- Mexicans defined as quintessential "illegal" alien via 1) tightening border restrictions, 2) bracero program, 3) Operation "Wetback" deportations
- Growing in emphasis after WWI on national sovereignty and regulating the nation-state's borders
- Uncovers and critiques the more conservative side of the Hart-Celler 1965 Immigration Act
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License