Impossible Subjects

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Mae M. Ngai. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. 2004. (Price). Paper: ISBN 0-691-12429-9


On an impersonal level, illegal aliens are the product of a combination of legal, economic and political factors. There can be no “illegal” unless there are laws in place, and there can be no “aliens” unless there are some criteria that defines who belongs and who doesn’t (4). Therefore, the history of illegal immigration in the United States is one that reflects the continued development of American self-vision, the laws that codified that vision, and the government that enforced it. Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects is that sort of history; a history of American attempts to come to terms with the persistent question of what it meant and means to be an American. Her argument is that the nation-state claims of sovereignty have not been a “transcendent center of truth but rather a malleable, elastic issue that has changed depending on the economic and political climate,” and indeed, who is doing the defining (12).

In Part I, Ngai examines the subject of “who doesn’t belong” by first setting the legal foundation of restricting immigration. This is not a story of Ellis Island and poor huddled masses in the 19th century when freedom of movement across the oceans was regulated by lasseiz-faire labor mobility. When the frontier was closed in 1893, the continuing influx of immigrants on both coasts began to cause real concern among the whites who appropriated the definition of Americans for themselves. Their reaction was to develop laws; quotas to determine who could come in, and deportment policies to determine who could not stay. Ngai’s narrative really starts in 1924 with the passage of the Johnson-Reed immigration act, which placed the definition of eligibility for citizenship on racial grounds. But changing political and economic conditions throughout the century alternately made some immigrants welcome, or at least less undesirable, than others.

With the legal foundation established, Ngai examines specific cases in Part II. The first two highlight how the nation tried to manage immigration around the margins of law in a continuing effort to provide cheap labor. The first case is that of the influx of Filipino laborers to the west coast after the end of the Spanish-American War. As citizens of a territory of the United States, the Filipinos expected to be able to work in the continental US with a status of if not equals at least more equal than other immigrants. Their vision ran up against reality when the old issue of race mixing reared its heads. The resulting tensions and violence placed in the government in the uncomfortable position of trying to mollify their offended Philippine subjects while simultaneously trying to quiet concerns of their own citizens. The onset of the Depression exacerbated this conflict, resulting in attempts to repatriate Filipinos en masse. The second case of officially sponsored immigration was that of Mexico. Mexican proximity to the United States and the historical variations of their mutual border made attempts to manage immigration problematic. The two governments tried to resolve with the bracero programs (which Ngai calls an act of imported colonialism (129)), which like provided cheap contract labor across the southwest. But throughout its life this program was plagued with legal contradictions and blatant violations on the part of both employee and employer. The problems of the bracero program have never been resolved, and the border has seen varied degrees of militarization ever since.

Part III discusses how international engagements, particularly the hot war of the 1940s and the cold war of the 1950s, influenced American visions of immigrants. At the turn of the century, the American image of Japanese was if not completely favorable, at least better than the popular image of the Chinese. This condition was reversed during the Second World War, when the internment of Japanese Americans was arguably the most blatant manifestation of legal racial discrimination since the Jim Crow era. The coerced renunciation of American citizenship and the deportation efforts that followed were alternately supported and then forgiven by the American legal system, reflecting the turn of the war tide in favor of the US, the end of the war, and the establishment of Japan as a Cold War ally.

The Chinese immigrant underwent similar cycles of change in favor, usually diametrically opposite to his Japanese counterpart. Alternately disdained and tolerated prior to the war, the Chinese image was overhauled into that of a gallant ally during the war. But inevitably this image varied as the Cold War postures hardened. In a manner similar to the war hysteria that prompted the Japanese internment, deportation proceedings for Chinese immigrants with sketchy citizenship documentation were started in the late 50s. But unlike the 40s, a less docile immigrant population fought the proceedings legally.

John Lillard, Spring 2010

As this history is reflected in and influenced by the development of immigration laws, Ngai records some truly embarrassing rulings by American high courts regarding the question of who was eligible for citizenship. Over a surprisingly long time, these judgments reflected that as far as the law was concerned, eligibility for citizenship was racially based. Thus, the privileges of citizenship for immigrants depended not on how committed to American ideals they were, but instead on elements that were entirely beyond their control (46). For those who fell outside the legal quotas and regulations, the very act of immigrating was illegal. Accordingly, the illegal immigrant, no matter how altruistic his motives, was looked on as a criminal (89).

Early attempts to legally classify people as either white or non-white broke down with the arrival of Asian Indians, Filipinos, Chinese and Japanese who were seen at different times as variously white and assimilable, or non-white and ineligible (38). Objections to these “others” were ostensibly economic in that they allegedly undercut wages for native white labor class, but the real issues were always deeper and more complex. Racial prejudices of native whites in the 20th century were not restricted to the old confederacy, and the statements Ngai records regarding oversexed and undisciplined Filipinos and Mexicans were the same claims that had been made about American blacks since the 19th century.

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