Reading Response – Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae Ngai

BradleyGraduate Work, History0 Comments

Ngai’s main argument is that illegal aliens were created through acts of positive law rather than through bad character, conduct, race or culture. In other words, prior to legislation that designated certain individuals as being in the country illegally, the category did not exist. Further, she argues that illegal immigration is a necessary by-product of a restrictive immigration process and that, in the American context, illegal immigration was not a side-channel to legal immigration. She argues instead that illegal immigration was used as a primary means of entering the U.S. by many immigrants and played a major role in populating the country. It seems that what she is attempting to clarify is the fact that many people immigrated to the country illegally, but found ways to have their status legalized after the fact, with the moral implications of illegal entry being dependent on race and the time-period examined.

While touching briefly on Filipinos, Japanese, and Chinese immigrants, Ngai’s narrative focuses primarily on migrants and immigrants from Mexico and how their experience has shaped the modern discourse regarding illegal aliens in the United States. She presents Mexicans as the archetypal illegal immigrant in the American imagination. In Ngai’s view, the focus on Mexicans as illegal immigrants is a result of the border culture in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico as well as U.S. labor practices and policies. Ngai’s aim seems to be to show that the push by southwestern agriculturalists for cheap labor drove the importation, legal and otherwise, of Mexican laborers. Because the legal avenues for migration for work purposes became increasingly odious, many Mexicans preferred to cross into the country illegally.  The best example she gives for this is the bracero program, which put Mexicans in a situation that left them generally worse off than if they hired themselves out on an individual basis.

Ngai’s argument is reasonable. She points out that illegal immigration from Mexico was the result of a failure on the part of the U.S. government to create adequate structures for legal entry by Mexican workers. She also points out that the drive for cheap labor that created the bracero program was based on a failure of the U.S. government to stand up to greedy agriculturalists and insist on fair wages for American workers. Ngai argues that this happened because the way people thought of America as a nation shifted. Laws were created to create the desired legal population. This shift created avenues for Europeans to become legalized but left Mexicans excluded from belonging to the nation in the American imagination. This exclusion was also the case for Japanese and Chinese immigrants, regardless of their legal or illegal status and whether they were citizens by naturalization or birth.

Ngai’s use of the Japanese and Filipino experience in the context of illegal immigration seems out of place. Did she include these groups to present a broader contrast between the way that Asiatic and Latin American immigrants were treated in comparison to Europeans? The experiences of these groups show that racism played a part in defining European Americans’ view of the nation, but “nullification” of citizenship rights and decolonization with voluntary repatriation are not the same as being considered an illegal entrant. The concept of being illegal connotes a violation of the law and a lack of citizenship status. For the Japanese, or at least the Nisei, their citizenship was never in question and neither was the legality of their status as Americans. The Issei did not enter the country illegally. They did not have access to citizenship but they were accepted legally, if not socially, as residents. With the Filipinos, repatriation was voluntary, rather than forced, indicating that their position was not illegal in the sense that they could be forcefully deported in an immigration sweep like Operation Wetback.

Ngai’s work is especially important in the way that it reveals the underlying assumptions about how the national body was viewed and how that view created the legal structures that created illegal immigrants. The immigration system was constructed in a way that ignored existing labor migration and pandered to the desire of agriculturalists to maximize profit with cheap labor. The willingness of Mexicans to take on jobs that were considered low paying to Americans fed into a racial image of Mexicans as undeveloped, while simultaneously painting them as lazy or arrogant if they refused to be cheated out of their wages or benefits. The Mexican stereotype that developed seems to have been applied to all non-European immigrants and work like Ngai’s helps to correct that historical narrative.

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