top of page

Book Review


After reading Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004), one may well be struck by what an unnatural form of social organization is the nation-state. This entity that sets arbitrary geographical boundaries between self and other, “us” and “them,” and has the power to enforce these boundaries to the point of giving remarkable protection to “us” and acting to the positive detriment of “them,” embodies the most vicious and dangerous kind of exclusionism. The citizen and the non-citizen -- the person and the non-person -- the full human and the half-human who can be stripped of rights he thought he possessed and imprisoned without due process, deported, moved around and manipulated with little legal recourse. In Impossible Subjects, Ngai tells the story of the most exclusionary and racist period in the history of American immigration law, between 1924 and 1965. Her title sums up the central and horrifying fact of restrictive immigration policies, namely that people can be present in a country illegally, that therefore they have few or no rights except at the pleasure of higher authorities (be they bureaucrats, judges, or legislators). Illegal aliens are impossible subjects, people who, according to the law, have no right to exist.


The danger of policies that limit citizenship was made clear by the Holocaust, which was perpetrated on people who had become stateless by having their citizenship revoked. As Earl Warren said, “Citizenship is man’s basic right, for it is nothing less than the right to have rights. Remove this priceless possession and there remains a stateless person, disgraced and degraded in the eyes of his countrymen. He has no lawful claim to protection from any nation, and no nation may assert rights on his behalf” (p. 229). Richard Rubenstein concludes that in fact no crimes were committed at Auschwitz, because the (stateless) victims had no rights.[1] According to domestic and international law they were non-entities.


Fortunately, most “illegal aliens” are not stateless but remain citizens of the country of their origin, a fact that presumably provides them with some minimal legal protection. Strangely, Ngai does not discuss this matter in any depth; she does not indicate what rights, if any, illegal aliens have by virtue of (in some cases) being citizens of another country. What powers does their government have to protect them? Not many, it seems, since she does not mention them. She does describe some of the ways in which aliens have been granted rights, or something like rights, since the early twentieth century. For example, in the 1930s “deportation policy became the object of legal reform to allow for administrative discretion in deportation cases,” specifically cases in which deportation “separated families or exacted other hardships that were out of proportion to the offense committed” (p. 57). In later years this benevolent use of “administrative discretion” largely disappeared. More recently, in 1982 the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented children have the right to public education. Aliens have even been granted certain rights to due process in matters of deportation and detention (p. 268). In 1996, on the other hand, Congress passed laws that deprived legal and illegal aliens of many former rights, such as welfare benefits (for legal aliens) and judicial review in deportation cases. […]


A fruitful way of looking at the history of U.S. immigration law is as a prism through which to view broader trends in society. A country’s treatment of the “other” illuminates its treatment of itself, or of the groups that constitute it. Obvious examples are the racially motivated laws from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. Before the early 1920s immigration was relatively open, except for the exclusion of Chinese laborers due to an act passed in 1882 and a 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Japan that barred further Japanese emigration to the U.S. As Ngai states, “[O]n the United States Pacific Coast, Asian migrants collided with the racial imperatives of American manifest destiny, the ideology of continental expansion that had declared the West the domain of Anglo-Saxon civilization” (p. 18). Already in the 1880s, therefore, the U.S. had entered the West’s climactic period of racism, imperialism, and nationalism, which would last until World War II.


After World War I Western nationalism became even more shrill, a shrillness reflected in immigration laws.


[T]he international system that emerged with World War I gave primacy to the territorial integrity of the nation-state, which raised the borders between nations. For example, the introduction of passport controls in Europe and the United States, begun as emergency war measures, became, without exception, the norm in regulating international migration. In the United States, the Immigration Act of 1924 would require not only passports (documentary evidence of national identity) but also visas (documentary proof of permission to enter) for admission into the country [p. 19].


At the same time, the obsession with race reached new heights, such that the Immigration Act of 1924 fused racism and nationalism in a sort of uneasy truce. For instance, to limit immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Congress set up a complicated quota system based on national origins, according to which every country except those in the Western hemisphere had an annual quota of at least a hundred people, depending on the proportion of people inhabiting the U.S. in 1920 who were descended from it. Thus, the United Kingdom had a quota of 65,721, while India had a quota of 100. However, Congress also stipulated that Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Siamese people were ineligible to citizenship and hence excluded from immigration. So, while each of these countries had a quota of 100, the people who “racially” belonged to them were barred from immigration. These kinds of absurdities are what result when one tries to reconcile racist thinking with nationalist thinking. But in the 1920s, the U.S. was evidently steeped in these two kinds of prejudices to such an extent that politicians, academics, “race scientists” and others would agonize for months and years[2] over how to devise a system that accommodated racism and nationalism at the same time.


Less than twenty-five years later, however, by the late 1940s, the unholy trinity of imperialism, racism, and nationalism had lost legitimacy, with the consequence that reformers started a campaign to purge prejudice from the nation’s immigration laws. As the 1950s passed into the 1960s, increasing liberalism, cultural pluralism, and rights-consciousness lent greater urgency to these efforts, until finally in 1965 Congress passed an Immigration Act that jettisoned the system of national origins quotas, “replacing it with a new system of quotas that were at once global (applying to all countries) and evenly distributed (20,000 per country)” (p. 227).


And yet the new law remained very restrictionist in some ways, causing a rise in illegal immigration from Mexico. Which brings us back to the dilemma cited earlier, of how to treat all people as humans in a world organized around nation-states. Probably it is impossible, given the necessary distinction between citizens and non-citizens. The logical conclusion, then, is that society will not be humane until nation-states have withered away.


[1] Richard Rubenstein, The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 67.

[2] The quota system was not finalized until 1929, five years after the Immigration Act.

bottom of page