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  • Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America
  • David Montgomery
Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. By Mae M. Ngai ( Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004. xx plus 377 pp.).

The illegal alien has acquired decisive importance not only in the economies of both the United States and the alien's own country of origin, but also in America's political discourse. While more than 9 million immigrants were legally admitted to the United States between 1991 and 2000 (surpassing the totals of 1901 to 1910, which loom so large in national imagery and in historical writing), government agents expelled more than 14,500,000 aliens during the same decade. Professor Mae Ngai of the University of Chicago's history department has explored the economic roles of immigrants during the twentieth century, the changing ways immigrants have been framed in political and academic discourse, and the legislation and administrative agencies which have attempted to regulate their entry and participation in national life. Her book stands out as a [End Page 1120] worthy sequel to the late John Higham's classic Strangers in the Land.1 Ngai also offers a challenging critique of the liberal ideology that informed both Higham's narrative and post-World War II campaigns to reform exclusionist legislation adopted during the 1920s.

Although Ngai provides an overview of the origins of such concepts as citizen, alien, and naturalization in modern history, the accommodating approach of national legislation toward immigration before 1914, the distinctive status bestowed on Chinese as the only nationality excluded by name, and the immigration act of 1917 which extended exclusion policy to all immigrants from the "barred Asiatic Zone" stretching eastward from Afghanistan to the Pacific, it is the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that marks the starting point of her close analysis (just as it had concluded Higham's book). Between the two world wars, as Nigel Harris put it, "the world became fenced."2 Every industrial country then minutely regulated the entry of foreigners, allowing in few who were not guest workers contracted by the receiving governments for specific tasks, like the Poles, Vietnamese, Italians, and others brought to reconstruct France and the skilled foreigners invited by the Soviet Union during its first five-Year Plan.3 Guided by policy studies drafted by expert commissions and cheered on by organized nativists, the U.S. Congress capped off a series of legislative efforts with the act of 1924. This established the basis of immigration law until 1965.

The Johnson-Reed Act created country's first numerical limits on legal entrants and created a global hierarchy of "national origins" for Europeans and "colored races" for others (37), in pursuance of the goal enunciated by Director Joseph A. Hill of the Census Bureau: "The stream that feeds the reservoir should have the same composition as the contents of the reservoir itself." (27) The act incorporated the position of recent Supreme Court decisions that all Asians were ineligible for naturalization. Mexicans, whom the Census Bureau now identified as a racial (not national) category, faced no quotas, but they were subject to interrogation, head taxes, weekly baths, and arbitrary arrest and deportation by the newly created Border Patrol. As migrant workers evaded these obstacles in growing numbers, walking or wading across the southern border became "the quintessential act of illegal immigration," (89) while discriminatory state legislation combined with the huge Western market for mobile agricultural workers to create "a kind of imported colonialism." (95)

Impossible Subjects devotes close attention to the impact of global conflicts and alliances and to New Deal reforms that augmented Congressional legislation with administrative law. Ethnic groups that comprised major constituencies for the New Deal won a measure of due process and respect for family integrity, reversing the rising tide of deportations they had faced during the twenties. Their struggle, to which Ngai devotes but little space, reached a climax at a 1940 national conference for the rights of the foreign born, mobilized in reaction to the alien registration (Smith) act.4

But Mexicans, Filipinos, Chinese, and Japanese-Americans each suffered their own distinctive encounters with the exclusionary regime. Impossible Subjects scrutinizes each of...


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