Impossible Subjects

Mae M. Ngai. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton:Princeton University Press, 2004. 



In Impossible Subjects Ngai argues that in the 20th century ideas of citizenship, race, and the nation-state were shaped by restrictive immigration policy. The period from 1924-1965 is critical to Ngai for a couple of reasons. First, many historians studying immigration have focused on immigration from Europe prior to 1924. The next wave of scholarship on immigration has been situated in the period after 1965, “when the national origins quota system was abolished and immigration from the third world increased” (3). The second reason is because the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 was the first comprehensive restrictive law. This law established the first ever “numerical limitations on immigration and a global racial and national hierarchy that favored some immigrants over others” (3).
Ngai outlines the two ways in which restrictive immigration policy “remapped” the nation. The first is the creation of categorical and hierarchical distinctions between race and ethnicity. Second, there was a sense of territory discernible through contiguous land borders. This study ends with the year 1965; it marks the passage of the Hart-Celler Act which lifted the national origins quotas. By covering the years between 1924 and 1965, this book seeks to fill the space in American immigration historiography in regards to the major themes of transnational history, labor history, citizenship, and race.  
Impossible Subjects is divided into four parts. Part one “The Regime of Quotas and Papers,” laid the legal foundation of restrictive immigration. The ever changing political and economic conditions demonstrated how some immigrants were more desirable than others. Part two “Migrants at the Margins of Law” discusses the roles of immigrant laborers such as Filipinos and Mexicans in the West and Southwest. “War, Nationalism, and Alien Citizenship,” examines Asian Americans citizenship during WWII and the Cold War. At this time, Japanese Americans citizenship status did not prevent their internment during World War II. Ngai explains that the government did not fully strip take away Japanese Americans citizenship status “but in effect it nullified their citizenship, exclusively on the grounds of racial difference” (175). In the last part,” Pluralism and Nationalism in Post-World War II Immigration Reform” Ngai evaluates how the government overhauled immigration policies causing high levels of illegal immigration. As a result, illegal immigration became problematic to America’s immigration policy throughout the 20th century and into the 21th century.    

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