Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America / Edition 1

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Overview

This book traces the origins of the "illegal alien" in American law and society, explaining why and how illegal migration became the central problem in U.S. immigration policy--a process that profoundly shaped ideas and practices about citizenship, race, and state authority in the twentieth century.

Mae Ngai offers a close reading of the legal regime of restriction that commenced in the 1920s--its statutory architecture, judicial genealogies, administrative enforcement, differential treatment of European and non-European migrants, and long-term effects. In well-drawn historical portraits, Ngai peoples her study with the Filipinos, Mexicans, Japanese, and Chinese who comprised, variously, illegal aliens, alien citizens, colonial subjects, and imported contract workers. She shows that immigration restriction, particularly national-origin and numerical quotas, re-mapped the nation both by creating new categories of racial difference and by emphasizing as never before the nation's contiguous land borders and their patrol. This yielded the "illegal alien," a new legal and political subject whose inclusion in the nation was a social reality but a legal impossibility--a subject without rights and excluded from citizenship. Questions of fundamental legal status created new challenges for liberal democratic society and have directly informed the politics of multiculturalism and national belonging in our time.

Ngai's analysis is based on extensive archival research, including previously unstudied records of the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Naturalization Service. Contributing to American history, legal history, and ethnic studies, Impossible Subjects is a major reconsideration of U.S. immigration in the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

Michigan Law Review
May Impossible Subjects indeed lead to bold changes? Ngai creates that possibility, through altering our vision of immigration history, in showing us the constructed and contingent nature of its legal regulation. Impossible Subjects is essential reading.
Los Angeles Times Book Review - Tamar Jacoby
[A] deeply stimulating work. . . . Ngai's undeniable premise—as pertinent today as ever—is that the lawfully regulated part of our immigration system is only the tip of the iceberg. Even as we have allowed legal immigrants, mostly from Europe, through the front door, we have always permitted others, generally people of color, to slip in the back gate to do essential jobs.
Journal of American History - Charlotte Brooks
Ngai has produced a valuable reinterpretation of twentieth-century American immigration history, one that will push other scholars of race, immigration, and policy in new directions as well.
International History Review - David M. Reimers
Ngai's book is a stunning piece of scholarship. . . . [F]or background reading of 'illegal immigration' that takes a broader view, this is an outstanding book.
American Journal of Sociology - Rhacel Salazar Parrenas
Impossible Subjects offers an important contribution to U.S. histories of race, citizenship, and immigration. This stunning history of U.S. immigration policy dispels the liberal rhetoric that underlies popular notions of immigrant America, as it establishes the designation of Asians and Mexicans as perpetual racial others. Everyone in the field of race and immigration should read this thought provoking book.
Journal of International Migration and Integration - Linda Bosniak
This superb book by historian Mae Ngai addresses the emergence of the legal and social category of 'illegal immigrant' in the United States. . . . Ngai addresses the subject . . . in a variety of historical contexts and each casts a different light on their deeply ambiguous condition.
Western Historical Quarterly - Yen Le Espiritu
Moving beyond the telos of immigrant settlement, assimilation, and citizenship and the myth of 'immigrant America,' Mae Ngai's Impossible Subjects conceptualizes immigration not as a site for assessing the acceptability of the immigrants, but as a site for understanding the racialized economic, cultural, and political foundations of the United States.
Doctor; Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law - Alison Pennington
Mae Ngai's book . . . offers a fascinating reinterpretation and critique of the United States as a mythicized 'nation of immigrants.' Ngai demonstrates the critical role that colonialism, foreign policy considerations and racial politics played in shaping U.S. immigration and national identity. . . . Ngai's book is an extraordinary contribution to U.S. immigration history and a stimulating read.
" Michigan Law Review i Volpp

May Impossible Subjects indeed lead to bold changes? Ngai creates that possibility, through altering our vision of immigration history, in showing us the constructed and contingent nature of its legal regulation. Impossible Subjects is essential reading.
American Journal of Sociology - Rhacel Salazar Parreñas
Impossible Subjects offers an important contribution to U.S. histories of race, citizenship, and immigration. This stunning history of U.S. immigration policy dispels the liberal rhetoric that underlies popular notions of immigrant America, as it establishes the designation of Asians and Mexicans as perpetual racial others. Everyone in the field of race and immigration should read this thought provoking book.
Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law - Dr. Alison Pennington
Mae Ngai's book . . . offers a fascinating reinterpretation and critique of the United States as a mythicized 'nation of immigrants.' Ngai demonstrates the critical role that colonialism, foreign policy considerations and racial politics played in shaping U.S. immigration and national identity. . . . Ngai's book is an extraordinary contribution to U.S. immigration history and a stimulating read.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
[A] deeply stimulating work. . . . Ngai's undeniable premise—as pertinent today as ever—is that the lawfully regulated part of our immigration system is only the tip of the iceberg. Even as we have allowed legal immigrants, mostly from Europe, through the front door, we have always permitted others, generally people of color, to slip in the back gate to do essential jobs.
— Tamar Jacoby
Choice
Ngai pulls no punches, arguing that in most cases . . . illegal [immigrants] were stigmatized by negative racial stereotypes and branded as dangerous. . . . [I]t belongs in every library and should be referenced in every ethnic studies course.
Journal of American History
Ngai has produced a valuable reinterpretation of twentieth-century American immigration history, one that will push other scholars of race, immigration, and policy in new directions as well.
— Charlotte Brooks
International History Review
Ngai's book is a stunning piece of scholarship. . . . [F]or background reading of 'illegal immigration' that takes a broader view, this is an outstanding book.
— David M. Reimers
American Journal of Sociology
Impossible Subjects offers an important contribution to U.S. histories of race, citizenship, and immigration. This stunning history of U.S. immigration policy dispels the liberal rhetoric that underlies popular notions of immigrant America, as it establishes the designation of Asians and Mexicans as perpetual racial others. Everyone in the field of race and immigration should read this thought provoking book.
— Rhacel Salazar Parreñas
Journal of International Migration and Integration
This superb book by historian Mae Ngai addresses the emergence of the legal and social category of 'illegal immigrant' in the United States. . . . Ngai addresses the subject . . . in a variety of historical contexts and each casts a different light on their deeply ambiguous condition.
— Linda Bosniak
Western Historical Quarterly
Moving beyond the telos of immigrant settlement, assimilation, and citizenship and the myth of 'immigrant America,' Mae Ngai's Impossible Subjects conceptualizes immigration not as a site for assessing the acceptability of the immigrants, but as a site for understanding the racialized economic, cultural, and political foundations of the United States.
— Yen Le Espiritu
Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law
Mae Ngai's book . . . offers a fascinating reinterpretation and critique of the United States as a mythicized 'nation of immigrants.' Ngai demonstrates the critical role that colonialism, foreign policy considerations and racial politics played in shaping U.S. immigration and national identity. . . . Ngai's book is an extraordinary contribution to U.S. immigration history and a stimulating read.
— Dr. Alison Pennington
Western Historical Quarterly
Moving beyond the telos of immigrant settlement, assimilation, and citizenship and the myth of 'immigrant America,' Mae Ngai's Impossible Subjects conceptualizes immigration not as a site for assessing the acceptability of the immigrants, but as a site for understanding the racialized economic, cultural, and political foundations of the United States.
— Yen Le Espiritu
American Journal of Sociology
Impossible Subjects offers an important contribution to U.S. histories of race, citizenship, and immigration. This stunning history of U.S. immigration policy dispels the liberal rhetoric that underlies popular notions of immigrant America, as it establishes the designation of Asians and Mexicans as perpetual racial others. Everyone in the field of race and immigration should read this thought provoking book.
— Rhacel Salazar Parrenas
Michigan Law Review
May Impossible Subjects indeed lead to bold changes? Ngai creates that possibility, through altering our vision of immigration history, in showing us the constructed and contingent nature of its legal regulation. Impossible Subjects is essential reading.
From the Publisher
"Mae Ngai's book . . . offers a fascinating reinterpretation and critique of the United States as a mythicized 'nation of immigrants.' Ngai demonstrates the critical role that colonialism, foreign policy considerations and racial politics played in shaping U.S. immigration and national identity. . . . Ngai's book is an extraordinary contribution to U.S. immigration history and a stimulating read."—Dr. Alison Pennington, Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Mae M. Ngai is professor of history and Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies at Columbia University. Her books include "The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America".

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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Illustrations xi
List of Tables xiii
Acknowledgments xv
Note on Language and Terminology xix
Introduction
Illegal Aliens: A Problem of Law and History 1
PART I: THE REGIME OF QUOTAS AND PAPERS 15
One
The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and the Reconstruction of Race in Immigration Law 21
Two
Deportation Policy and the Making and Unmaking of Illegal Aliens 56
PART II: MIGRANTS AT THE MARGINS OF LAW AND NATION 91
Three
From Colonial Subject to Undesirable Alien: Filipino Migration in the Invisible Empire 96
Four
Braceros, "Wetbacks," and the National Boundaries of Class 127
PART III: WAR, NATIONALISM, AND ALIEN CITIZENSHIP 167
Five
The World War II Internment of Japanese Americans and the Citizenship Renunciation Cases 175
Six
The Cold War Chinese Immigration Crisis and the Confession Cases 202
PART IV: PLURALISM AND NATIONALISM IN POST-WORLD WAR II IMMIGRATION REFORM 225
Seven
The Liberal Critique and Reform of Immigration Policy 227
Epilogue 265
Appendix 271
Notes 275
Archival and Other Primary Sources 357
Index 369

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