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Reviews in American History 33.4 (2005) 553-560

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Making Illegal Aliens

Mae M. Ngai. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. 368 pp. Illustrations, figures, appendices, notes, bibliography, and index. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Mae M. Ngai's Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America takes on a topic of considerable contemporary relevance by exploring the origins of the illegal alien in American society and why this "impossible subject" became the central problem of U.S. immigration policy. She focuses on the years 1924 to 1965, that often overlooked period of U.S. immigration history bracketed by the historic Johnson-Reed and Hart-Celler acts, and offers provocative reinterpretations of both watershed laws. Histories of this era tend to focus on how Johnson-Reed reduced the stream of newcomers and established national quotas that discriminated against Eastern and Southern Europeans. Ngai, by contrast, focuses on the experiences of Mexicans and Asians to demonstrate that the 1924 law created a new, racialized category of illegal aliens.

It is well known that America's "open door" began to close long before the Johnson-Reed Act went into effect. The sharpest restrictions applied to Asians, as between 1882 and 1917 the United States barred laborers from China and then Japan, and finally all natives of an "Asiatic zone" that ran from Afghanistan to the Pacific (p. 37). In a parallel insult, the United States also declared all Chinese, Japanese, and Asian Indians "racially ineligible to citizenship" (p. 38). A relatively small number of Europeans, by contrast, were excluded by bans on such undesirable individuals as criminals and anarchists, and by a literacy test imposed in 1917.

The 1920s heralded a new era in immigration restriction. Technological advances in manufacturing reduced the need for cheap industrial labor, nativists worried that hordes of poor refugees would flee war-torn Europe, and the Red Scare created the impression that every immigrant was a potential subversive. At the same time, "the international system that emerged with World War I gave primacy to the territorial integrity of the nation-state, which raised the borders between nations" through such mechanisms as [End Page 553] passports and visas (p. 19). The dilemma for restrictionists wishing to curtail immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe (seen as less assimilable than the older stream from Northern and Western Europe) was how to create a law that would "discriminate without appearing to do so" (p. 22). They settled on the "national origins" system that based each European nation's quota on the number of U.S. residents in 1920 who traced their ancestry to that nation. Ngai offers a fascinating discussion of the demographers charged with assessing the national origins of the population, whom she depicts as conscientious social scientists crippled by inadequate records and their own ethnic and racial biases. Among the problems with the system they developed were the decision to classify "whites" by country of origin and "non-whites" by race, thus placing the latter "outside the concept of nationality and, therefore, citizenship" (p. 27). Even as the system created a hierarchy among Europeans (by using methods that gave Northern and Western Europeans disproportionately high quotas), it lumped them together as one white American race and marginalized immigrants from outside Europe. In this way, Ngai points out, "the cultural nationalism of the late nineteenth century had transformed itself into a nationalism based on race" (p. 23).

The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which institutionalized the national origins system, took very different approaches to immigration from Asia and Mexico. The law completed the process of Asian exclusion by barring all East and South Asians from immigrating or becoming citizens. As Ngai notes, this provision not only "constitute[ed] 'Asian' as a peculiarly American racial category" but also "codified the principle of racial exclusion into the main body of American immigration and naturalization law" (p. 37). By contrast, the act placed no limits on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere or on their ability to become citizens, a decision that reflected Pan...


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