54 pages 1 hour read

Mae M. Ngai

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004) is a study of American immigration policies by Mae M. Ngai, a professor of history at Columbia University with a specialty in migration studies. In Impossible Subjects, Ngai argues that restrictive immigration policies in the United States (US) have created the problem of illegal immigration and associated it with racial minorities. She focuses on the period between 1924 and 1965, as comprehensive immigration laws were passed in each of those years. The book received several prestigious awards, including ones from the Organization of American Historians, the American Studies Association, the American Historical Association, and the Immigration and Ethnic History Society.

This guide uses the 2014 Princeton University Press paperback edition.

Content Warning: Since Ngai chronicles the racism embedded in US immigration law and the experiences of migrants, she cites derogatory terms once assigned to immigrant groups.


In the aftermath of World War I, there was a global trend toward territorial integrity and the establishment of hard borders, with visas and passports required for international movement. In the United States, nativist groups pressured Congress to pass the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924. For the first time, this law restricted European immigration to the US via a system of national origins quotas. Formulated in biased way to preserve a white majority, these quotas favored northern European immigration over southern and eastern European immigration. The act excluded Asians and Africans, as they were deemed ineligible for citizenship. Such countries were assigned the minimum quota of 100. The law thus established a racial hierarchy of desirability.

With this law in place, border security became prioritized on the pretext that excluded persons could enter via Mexico. Even though there were no numerical restrictions on Mexican immigration, there were obstacles—such as taxes, literacy tests, and humiliating bodily inspections—to their entry. As a result, these impediments produced illegal entries. People entering illegally were branded as criminals, deported if caught, and barred from re-entry. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, racial animosity toward Mexicans resulted in mass expulsions via repatriation programs and deportations. While European deportations increased during this time as well, authorities found loopholes to legalize the status of those they deemed deserving.

With Asian immigration already cut off, agribusinesses recruited Filipinos and Mexicans to work. Both groups were constructed in the American imagination as foreigners and excluded from American politics and society. Since the Philippines was a colonial possession in the 1920s, Filipinos could come to the US in unrestricted numbers. By 1930, there were approximately 56,000 Filipinos, mostly young and male, working on the West Coast in jobs demanding hard labor. Their attendance at dance halls and dating of white women sparked white outrage in the form of violence and race riots. Nativist groups and labor unions pushed for Filipino independence, which was won in the 1930s on terms disproportionately favorable to the US. The quota for Filipino immigration was then set at 50, lower than the minimum of 100. Congress additionally encouraged their repatriation to the Philippines with no right of return to the US.

After the forced removal and repatriation of about 400,000 Mexican Americans and immigrants in the 1930s, agribusinesses lobbied for a contract labor program at the outset of World War II. Breaking with the American legal tradition of free labor, the Bracero program was established in 1942 and existed until 1964. While braceros were supposed to be protected by the Migrant Labor Agreement with Mexico, agribusinesses routinely violated the terms of the agreement. Most commonly, they underpaid these workers. As the Mexican government would not allow braceros to work in segregated states, agribusinesses in those states continued to rely on illegal immigrants from Mexico who were paid even less than braceros. Both groups of workers were politically powerless, a fact which enabled their exploitation. Congress declined to extend protections to agricultural workers in the 1930s, exempting them from seminal laws, such as the Social Security Act. These workers were associated with criminality and considered foreigners; that stereotype extended to all ethnic Mexicans, whether citizens or not.

For Asian Americans, World War II had major implications. Japanese Americans and immigrants were evacuated from the West Coast and sent to internment camps for the duration of the war. Unlike German and Italian Americans, all Japanese Americans were assumed to be disloyal. The War Relocation Authority (WRA), which ran the camps and was staffed by New Deal liberals, sought to assimilate Japanese Americans but went about it problematically. The WRA required all adults in the camps to complete a loyalty questionnaire. Although not disloyal, many in the camps balanced dual nationalisms. For various reasons, such as a desire to avoid military service or a desire to keep families together, 13% of respondents either refused to answer or answered incorrectly. They were then placed in one camp at Tulelake. Congress passed the Denationalization Act in 1944, enabling people to renounce their US citizenship. While 5,049 Japanese Americans filed applications to do so, most changed their minds quickly. It took a lengthy legal struggle for most to regain their citizenship. After World War II, Japan became the United States’ closest ally in East Asia and, as a result, Japanese Americans’ standing improved.

Since China was allied with the US in World War II, the Exclusion Act—which had barred most Chinese immigration—was repealed in 1943. However, China’s Communist regime became an enemy of the US with the onset of the Cold War. The INS thus attempted to reduce Chinese immigration and sought to expose those in the US illegally. Instead of viewing those fleeing from China as escaping communism, the US considered them potential spies. Many Chinese immigrants in the US had claimed to be “paper sons,” or Americans by birth who had been taken back to China as children. Given the lack of records, such claims were difficult to disprove. Ultimately, the US government implemented a confession program which enabled most Chinese immigrants in the US to stay but shut down opportunities for future immigration.

After World War II, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, which allowed for the intake of 200,000 European refugees and ignored the plight of Asian refugees. In 1952, Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which imposed quotas on former British colonies in the Caribbean and created a global race quota to limit Asian immigration. In 1965, the Hart-Celler Immigration Act ended the racial allocation of quotas and implemented a policy of formal equality. However, it retained numerical restrictions on immigrants and imposed quotas on immigration from the Western Hemisphere for the first time. The law additionally retained from the 1952 law occupational preferences for immigrants and privileged immigrants with family ties in the US. This law therefore ensured the continuation and expansion of illegal immigration. In establishing quotas for the Western Hemisphere, it associated Mexicans and Latino/as with illegality in the American imagination.