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American Quarterly 57.2 (2005) 533-540

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Policy, Politics, and the Remaking of Immigration History

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. By Mae M. Ngai. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. 377 pages. $35.00 (cloth).

Mae Ngai has written an ambitious, innovative, and important book that deserves to be read widely. Social and cultural analyses have long dominated in the study of U.S. immigration, and this is especially the case among historians who specialize in the years before 1930 (the era of the so-called mass migrations) and social scientists more interested in the years of massive postcolonial or Third World migrations after 1965. Ngai's focus is instead on American public policy and law during the years of immigration restriction between 1924 and 1965. In her rich and complex study of the era, Ngai does demonstrate the new perspectives that emerge when we bring the state (and somewhat more indirectly) politics closer to the center of migration studies. Her title, Impossible Subjects, also alerts readers to an important thesis that will be of interest to all who seek to interpret the United States as a multiethnic "nation of immigrants" from a critical perspective.

By focusing on mobile persons, Ngai offers, first, a study of the juridical and legal categories created by the United States to govern those it claims as subjects or as citizens. Since all national states define themselves and establish their sovereignty by drawing physical boundaries or borders around themselves, they inevitably regard mobility across those boundaries as somewhat worrisome and unsettling—a fact that celebrations of the United States as an exceptionalist nation of immigrant settlers too easily obscure and that analysts of nativism misunderstand if they treat it as a specifically American phenomenon.

Ngai illustrates how twentieth-century public policies understood as "immigration restriction" have created problems both for the American state and for the mobile people it seeks to regulate. Human lives rarely conform neatly to the shifting categories that public policy creates in order to govern. To [End Page 533] make this point, Ngai tells the story of Clemente Martínez. Born in El Paso (and thus ostensibly a native-born citizen of the United States), Martínez's parents returned to Mexico with him, a child, in the 1930s. He returned to the United States twice as a foreign contract worker (bracero) in the 1940s. When he attempted to enter the country as a citizen in 1947, the I.N.S. excluded him, claiming he had expatriated himself by avoiding military service in the United States and by voting in Mexican elections. Entering the United States in 1952, again as a bracero from Mexico, Martínez then apparently tried to reclaim his citizenship, this time in California; ultimately it was the Supreme Court that rejected his claim.

Was Martínez an illegal alien? An alien? A citizen? An immigrant? All of the above? Controversies over categories swirled around even this one human life. Ngai attempts to bring some analytical rigor to their discussion. The illegal alien of Ngai's subtitle is the most important, but by no means the only, category tackled in Impossible Subjects, as the organization of the book suggests. Ngai divides her book into four parts. In the first she focuses on immigration restriction and on "The Regime of Quotas and Papers" that created illegal aliens. Juridically, an alien is simply a person without citizenship living on U.S. national territory. Historically, however, the term alien has never been a completely neutral one; at least since 1798 (and passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts) the term has carried with it negative associations, and foreigners who entered the United States in the years between 1830 and the 1930s were, in popular discourse, more often called "emigrants" or "immigrants." Aliens became "illegal aliens" as the United States began in the 1870s to restrict immigration; building momentum slowly, the restrictionist movement convinced Congress to pass a series of highly restrictive laws between 1917 and 1924. It was immigration restriction that—in the...


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