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Andrew S. Terrell Spring 2010

Précis 23 February 2010: Ngai, Mae M

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of

Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2004

Mae Ngai’s monograph was part of a renewed effort to track immigration policies in the

United States. The problem with immigration history has been the lack of a middle road, or

balanced, approach to the topic and as such has largely been written by partisan quills. Ngai

successfully approaches the topic from a well-argued, balanced vantage because her thesis holds

true throughout immigration policy eras; she believes citizenship and immigration go hand-in-

hand and are together a central, defining identity of American political culture. More

specifically, there is an equidistant growth of immigration (illegal included) and citizenship. Her

title, “Impossible Subjects,” refers to illegal aliens. While it may not have been created to serve

as a synthesis or survey or the topic, Ngai focuses more attention on points where policy changed

and exposes the ramifications of change over time. She takes time to cover many ethnic groups

to further prove her simple, yet frankly accurate, assertion that from the Johnson-Reed Act’s

inception in the early 1920s forward, deportation policies were racially influenced not just

ethnically. Her largest contribution to modern studies on immigration policies was her

conclusion on the 1965 Walter-McCarran Act; in her eyes this policy did little more than replace

a broken policy system based on quotas with a preferential modus operandi. From this act

forward, Hispanic immigration lost many chances at becoming naturalized citizens, but since

trends in immigration continued, only now the majority of immigration became illegal.

One feels Ngai could have gone more into the interplay of policy dictates and actual

implementation. Additionally, other than the epilogue’s brief attention to modern questions,

Ngai keeps to further dated events. While this is not necessarily a weakness of her work, it

stands to reason that since her narrative and thesis were so well-accepted, she could have

Andrew S. Terrell Spring 2010

continued showing her unique approach to policy history into the present situations. With that in

mind, how would she have presented more of the last three decades with her overarching theme?

Although her prose can be enlightening to the mass public, one believes her monograph is suited

to a politician’s staff in tracing the historical roots or immigration policies and trends over time

in the 20 th century. One does not which to question her approach to ethnic group studies, but in

the earlier chapters Near East and African immigration was glazed over. Because the quota

system was so specific, how would Africans or other Near East and Southwest Asian migrants

enter the U.S.? Again, this does not destroy the credibility of her chosen ethnics to focus on, but

it does not fully depict early 20 th century immigration without other ethnic groups’ struggles.

Nonetheless, as it stands, her attempts to expose formerly marginalized ethnics that are usually

labelled as illegal aliens, “alien citizens,” colony laborers, and subjects is due its turn in the

spotlight of immigration policy.