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Impossible Subjects

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America

Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: REV - Revised
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Impossible Subjects
    Book Description:

    This book traces the origins of the "illegal alien" in American law and society, explaining why and how illegal migration became the central problem in U.S. immigration policy-a process that profoundly shaped ideas and practices about citizenship, race, and state authority in the twentieth century. Mae Ngai offers a close reading of the legal regime of restriction that commenced in the 1920s-its statutory architecture, judicial genealogies, administrative enforcement, differential treatment of European and non-European migrants, and long-term effects. She shows that immigration restriction, particularly national-origin and numerical quotas, remapped America both by creating new categories of racial difference and by emphasizing as never before the nation's contiguous land borders and their patrol.

    Some images inside the book are unavailable due to digital copyright restrictions.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5023-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Figures and Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Note on Language and Terminology
    (pp. xix-xx)
  7. Foreword to the New Paperback Edition
    (pp. xxi-xxxii)

    This new edition ofImpossible Subjectscomes during a time of intensified public debate in the United States over unauthorized migration and immigration-policy reform. Existing and potential undocumented migrants continue to animate the central questions of immigration policy: legalization and the requirements of citizenship, border control and deportation, the labor market, family unity and separation. Indeed, many of the foundational issues of immigration restriction discussed inImpossible Subjectsremain pertinent today. At the same time, the past ten years have seen some notable changes in American demography and politics, as well as in the field of immigration history. It seems...

  8. Introduction Illegal Aliens: A Problem of Law and History
    (pp. 1-14)

    In 2001 the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service ordered Rosario Hernandez of Garland, Texas, deported to his native Mexico. Hernandez, a 39-year-old construction worker, had immigrated to Texas from Guadalajara, Mexico, when he was a teenager. His removal was ordered on grounds that he had been convicted three times for driving while intoxicated—twice nearly twenty years ago and once ten years later. After the third conviction Hernandez served five weekends in jail, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and gave up drinking. However, according to laws passed by Congress in 1996 the multiple convictions amounted to an “aggravated felony” and made...


    • [Part I: Introduction]
      (pp. 15-20)

      The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 marked both the end of one era, that of open immigration from Europe, and the beginning of a new one, the era of immigration restriction. The law placed numerical limits on immigration and established a quota system that classified the world’s population according to nationality and race, ranking them in a hierarchy of desirability for admission into the United States. Paradoxically, the quota system, while closing America’s gates to the “undesirable races” of southern and eastern Europe, redrew the color line around Europe instead of through it. Restriction also demanded a system of visa...

    • Chapter One The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and the Reconstruction of Race in Immigration Law
      (pp. 21-55)

      Although Congress legislated the first numerical restrictions in 1921, it would be nearly a decade before permanent immigration quotas were implemented. The intervening years were filled with contention and difficulty as Congress debated the design of a new system. All were keenly aware of the stakes: the new order would codify certain values and judgments about the sources of immigration, the desired makeup of the nation, and the requirements of citizenship.

      The nativists who had led the drive for restriction believed there were serious flaws in the 3-percent quotas that were established in 1921. The law set the quotas according...

    • Chapter Two Deportation Policy and the Making and Unmaking of Illegal Aliens
      (pp. 56-90)

      In January 1930, officials of the Bureau of Immigration testified about the Border Patrol before a closed session of the House immigration committee. Henry Hull, the commissioner general of immigration, explained that the Border Patrol did not operate “on the border line” but as far as one hundred miles “back of the line.” The Border Patrol, he said, was “a scouting organization and a pursuit organization.” Officers operate on roads “without warrants and wherever they find an alien they stop him. If he is illegally in the country, they take him to unit headquarters.”²

      George Harris, the assistant commissioner general,...


    • [Part II: Introduction]
      (pp. 91-95)

      The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 was motivated primarily by political concerns over the country’s ethnic and racial composition, but economic factors were still relevant. The business and manufacturing class did not oppose immigration restriction. American industry had matured sufficiently by the 1920s such that economic growth no longer came from a sheer expansion in capacity but from increases in productivity that were made possible by technological advances and refinements in industrial discipline.

      But if by the 1920s the size of the industrial workforce had stabilized, the situation in agriculture was quite different. During this time, commercial agriculture burgeoned, particularly...

    • Chapter Three From Colonial Subject to Undesirable Alien: Filipino Migration in the Invisible Empire
      (pp. 96-126)

      On February 6, 1937, Carlos Rodesillas, a 36-year-old Filipino from Stockton, California, and his two children, three and six years old, sailed out of San Francisco Bay on the S.S.Hoover. They landed at Manila and then traveled to Rodesillas’s hometown in Iloilo Province on Panay, an island at the middle of the Philippine archipelago in the Visayan Sea.² The Rodesillases were among some two thousand Filipinos who returned to the Philippines during the late 1930s under a federal repatriation program for indigent Filipinos. Congress authorized the program in 1935, shortly after it passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which established the...

    • Chapter Four Braceros, “Wetbacks,” and the National Boundaries of Class
      (pp. 127-166)

      In 1958 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the government’s revocation of Clemente Martínez Pérez’s citizenship. Martínez, who was born in El Paso, Texas, and therefore an American citizen by native birth, lost his citizenship because he had voted in an election in Mexico and failed to report for U.S. military service during World War II, both of which acts were grounds for citizenship revocation under the Nationality Act of 1940.³ Dissenting in the case, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “Citizenshipisman’s basic right, because it is nothing less than the right to have rights.” But, it would not be...


    • [Part III: Introduction]
      (pp. 167-174)

      World War II was a watershed in the history of Asian Americans. Wartime politics had momentous consequences for the two largest Asian ethno-racial groups in the United States at the time, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans: for the former, the repeal of Chinese exclusion in 1943, and for the latter, mass incarceration in U.S. concentration camps from 1942 to 1945. Each policy derived directly from the United States’ wartime relationship with the home country: China, an ally; Japan, the enemy.¹

      The foregrounding of state relations in midcentury Asian immigration and race policy was a change from the past. From the...

    • Chapter Five The World War II Internment of Japanese Americans and the Citizenship Renunciation Cases
      (pp. 175-201)

      The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II stands as the most extreme case of the construction and consequences of alien citizenship in American history. The U.S. government never formally stripped Japanese Americans of their citizenship. But in effect it nullified their citizenship, exclusively on grounds of racial difference. Presuming all Japanese in America to be racially inclined to disloyalty, the United States removed 120,000 Japanese Americans—two-thirds of them citizens—from their homes on the Pacific Coast and interned them in ten concentration camps in the interior.² Military orders, posted on telephone poles throughout the western halves of...

    • Chapter Six The Cold War Chinese Immigration Crisis and the Confession Cases
      (pp. 202-224)

      The Chinese have the dubious distinction of being the only group to be excluded from immigration into the United States explicitly by name. The Chinese exclusion laws, which barred all Chinese laborers from entry and prohibited Chinese from acquiring naturalized citizenship, generated the nation’s first illegal aliens as well as the first alien citizens. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1898 that Chinese born in the United States were citizens, the premises of exclusion—the alleged racial unassimilability of Chinese—powerfully influenced Americans’ perceptions of Chinese Americans as permanent foreigners. Excluded from the polity and for the most part confined...


    • Chapter Seven The Liberal Critique and Reform of Immigration Policy
      (pp. 227-264)

      History books record the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights and Immigration Acts of 1965 as watershed legislation of the Kennedy-Johnson era. The laws overturned longstanding legal traditions of race discrimination in America and broke the entrenched power of conservative sectional interests in Congress. As such, the legislative triad has been canonized in history and social science literature as the apotheosis of postwar liberalism, cultural pluralism, and democratic political mobilization: the “climactic achievements of the approach that had emphasized universalist principles” and the “high-water mark in the national consensus of egalitarianism.”²

      The Immigration Act of 1965 repealed...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 265-270)

    If the Johnson-Reed Act ushered in the most restrictionist era in American immigration law, the Hart-Celler Act, which ended that period, altered and refined but in no way overturned the regime of restriction. Certainly, patterns of immigration changed dramatically in the period after 1965, as the abolition of quotas based on national origin opened the way for increased immigration from the third world. Yet Hart-Celler’s continued commitment to numerical restriction, especially its imposition of quotas on Western Hemisphere countries, ensured that illegal immigration would continue and, in fact, increase. During the late twentieth century, illegal immigration became perceived as the...

    (pp. 271-274)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 275-356)
  16. Archival and Other Primary Sources
    (pp. 357-368)
  17. Index
    (pp. 369-377)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 378-378)