Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Book Review)

There are many books that delve into the America’s immigrant past, but I have seen few  that can express that history with so much detail and depth that is found in Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae M. Ngai. In just seven chapters, Ngai is able to provide an extremely detailed look at the policies and legislation that shaped America’s response toward immigrants and shows how one law can affect millions of people for years to come.

Growing up, I pictured immigration pretty much this way:

immigrant-children-ellis-island (1)

That is only part of the story (as I came to realize when I got older) because America’s immigration history because that history  also includes images like this:

:BorderpatrolHolding-764254 internment image010

In attempting to reconcile these two very different images of America’s past, Ngai examines the thinking process and subsequent  consequences of key legislation and policies on immigration that emerged during 1924 until 1965.  The author argues that this time period deserved special attention because it set the precedence of numerical quotas in our present day pollicies and redefined how the American government dealt with three basic questions:

  • If one is not born on American soil, how does one become an American citizen?
  • Who should be allowed into America’s borders?
  • What should be done for those who are not allowed in America’s borders?

What makes this so poignant is that America is still attempting to answer these questions today.

As Ngai demonstrates in the book, crafting immigration policy and legislation is never simple. There has always been challenges and struggles as the American government attempted to balance its status as a nation supporting immigration while at the same time discouraging immigrants that Americans did not want on their shores (either because of real or imagined fears). This led to a tumultuous and confusing series of policies and laws that simultaneously allowed some  immigrants to take advantage of America’s need for labor in the pursuit for a better life  while at the same time forced others to face the possibility of being arrested, deported, or even kept in internment camps (as the Japanese were in World War II). Because some of the policies set during that period are still in effect now, many immigrants still face the danger of being arrested or deported.  Immigrants, however, were not and are not passive victims in the process, however. They engaged in a range of  activities, from lobbying to protests (even illegal methods), in order to pursue their equality and rights on the path to American citizenship. It is these struggles that the author reflects on in her analysis of immigration policies from the viewpoint of the Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, Filipino Americans, and Japanese Americans.

In my opinion, the main message to get from this book  is that in order to understand where we are now with immigration policy, we must understand where we have been.

images (1)

My Opinion: Overall, this is a very interesting book. It is well-written, extremely insightful, and overwhelmingly detailed in its look at American immigration policy during 1924 to 1965. It covers these policies from more angles (legal standing, social consequences, and departmental issues) than I have seen in other books covering the same issue. Most history books are content to tell you that a certain piece of legislation was passed. In this book, Ngai would take that same piece of legislation and explore why it was implemented, how it was implemented, and the consequences it would have on lives of immigrants. That is her strongest asset and the reason this book has won so many awards.

On the other hand, if you are just looking for a quick summary of immigration policies and legislation, you will not find it here. Ngai jumps into the topic with a college-level vocabulary and a scholar’s confidence to match. In other words, if you are not ready to put your thinking cap on, you shouldn’t read it. The chapters are a little long, but not so long that you get lost in details (for the most part). In short, after reading this book, readers will have a whole new appreciation for the struggles behind their own status as American citizens and an even greater understanding of what non-citizens have gone through and will go through as a result of their status in American society.

About the Book & Author

Book Title:  Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (0691074712)

Review Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Publication Year: 2003

Number of Pages: (270 reading pages); All-evening read (4 or more hours)

Recommended: Yes

Available:  Amazon  Barnes & Noble Bookbyte Google Books (print only)

About the Author: http://history.columbia.edu/faculty/Ngai.html

Photo Courtesy & Credits

Photo 1: Immigrant children, Ellis Island, New York.By Brown Brothers, ca. 1908.Vintage print. http://www.archives.gov/press/press-kits/1930-census-photos/photos-2.html

Photo 2:  Photo from ” Turning the Tide on Illegal Immigration.” US Department of Homeland Security Leadership Journal Archive. http://ipv6.dhs.gov/journal/leadership/2008_11_01_archive.html (November 24, 2008 issue).

Photo 3: “Japanese-American Internment Camps in Idaho and the West, 1942-1945.”  Finding All Resources Relating to Idaho Program maintained by the Idaho Commission for Libraries. http://farrit.lili.org/node/94

Photo 4; Photo from Cesar de Chavez Page established by the California Department of Education. http://chavez.cde.ca.gov/ModelCurriculum/Teachers/Lessons/Resources/Biographies/K-2_Chavez_With%20Pics_%20HTM_files/image010.jpg

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