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Mai Ngai. Impossible Subjects Analytical Essay

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Updated: Dec 18th, 2019


The United States is largely composed of immigrants. Despite being hospitable to foreigners, the US faces numerous challenges mainly revolving around immigration policies coupled with how to incorporate immigrants into its system. Backing this assertion is a certain tale of immigration that preaches the idea of accepting immigrants rather than secluding them.

The story underscores the era before 1924, which witnessed massive European immigration, as well as the successive years after 1965 that was occasioned with the withdrawal of national origins ration. In the story, immigrants easily reside and adopt the lifestyle of the nation before becoming full citizens. This paper analyzes Mae Ngai’s striking book that narrates the background of immigration and citizenship in the U.S.

Background of Mae Ngai and Impossible Subjects

Mae Ngai is an author with doctoral honors in History and Asian American Studies. She is a political historian based in the US and she has revealed great compassion in studying issues revolving around immigration, sovereignty, as well as citizenship.

Apart from writing articles tackling immigration history and rules for popular newspapers like the New York Times, she is a proud author of numerous books and holder of more than six book awards. One of her renowned books is Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.

The book delves into the eras between 1924 and 1965, which have received minimal scrutiny over the past years. This period followed the ratification of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act in 1924 and it lasted until in 1965 when the Hart-Celler Act was enacted, which terminated the national origins quotas.

This restriction generated a new form of identity based on race and ethnicity, as well as a novel belief of territoriality. Annulling massive immigration caused tension along the US borders as some people attempted to enter the country illegally (Dinnerstein and Reimers 143). These events led to the development of what is popularly known as “illegal alien”.

Apart from examining the rarely mentioned epoch of comprehensive immigration regulation, Ngai also addresses the issue of immigrants who are discriminated in immigration scholarship. Impossible Subjects mainly studies illegal aliens, alien citizens, as well as contract workers.

The judicial policies that monitored these immigrants have been concealed causing a mutual amnesia at both national and communal level (Dinnerstein and Reimers 82). The book covers a detailed assessment that informs the readers of the history of immigration law that most people are unaware of because conventional literature avoids the subject. Ngai goes ahead to utilize her book for key diagnostic use.

A constant reminder in the book is the fact that the present immigrations rules and regulations are dependent on the past. Ngai reveals some policies that appear as impractical in the modern society, in other words, both their regressive or reform nature seems incredible. Some of the policies in these eons converted illegal immigrants to legal ones, which is a dominant idea in the book.

This idea seems to disapprove the perception that stringent policies on citizenship and immigration cannot be malleable. The book also revolves around the questions of illegitimacy in immigration and means that unlawful immigration evolve to be a key impediment in the U.S. immigration rules and regulations in the twentieth century (Brunner and Colarelli 389-413).

Currently in the U.S, most people racially refer to Mexicans as illegal aliens. Ngai’s book explains how such perceptions hinge on historical instigations. She clearly exemplifies how “illegal alien” developed as a new permissible as well as a political matter and its connections with the “Mexican” racial identity.

She also explains how the availability of massive unlawful populations in the US made other immigrant communities originating from Asia and Latino to fall in the “illegal” bracket, which underscores criminals who cannot adopt the American lifestyle (Brunner and Colarelli 389-413).

Ngai asserts that this presumption revolves on the idea of “alien citizens”, which covers people that gain citizenship in the form of immigration rather than identity. An ample section of the book addresses the issue of alien citizenship. The book has comprehensive historical information with potent arguments and extensive scope.

Illegal Aliens

In the initial sections of the book, Ngai spends her time discussing the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1994 that concurrently heralded the death of one epoch and the birth of another. The law annulled the unrestricted assimilation of immigrants from Europe and introduced a system that barred immigration in statistical terms.

The numerical restriction was done through a quota system that compared world’s population based on nationality and race. Many scholars conclude that the Act sought to prevent Southern as well as Eastern Europe citizens from coming to reside in the U.S. after the First World War. Therefore, to achieve its aim, the law used the census of 1890 and 1920 to set the numerical limits (Dinnerstein and Reimers 109).

The number of immigrants that were allowed in the country through the application of the 1890 census was extremely prejudiced. The aftermath of applying the 1920 census was a little different from the preceding quota system for it increased the number of immigrants from Northern Europe with minimal discrimination.

The allocation of slots using the 1920 population statistics was not founded on the population data of foreigners, but the total population of the U.S. inhabitants, and thus it contained the populace of immigrants from Northern Europe.

The application of the former would have grounded the law ratified in 1924, and consequently be biased against the populace that had migrated into the country (Brunner and Colarelli 389-413).

However, in the ratification of the 1924 law, the Native Americans figures were considered when developing the national quota. The Act appreciated that “residents” in the U.S. secluded immigrants from Western Hemisphere, foreigners annulled from citizenship, and descendants of slave migrants.

In contrast, the law eliminated foreigners from the genesis of America. Going back through history, readers learn how America prevented the unwelcomed races of Southern as well as Eastern Europe from joining the U.S. (Cannato 112-128).

The quota system included the entire world population, but excluded the Western Hemisphere mainly because of the prospect of exploiting Canada and Mexico and the massive agricultural workers from the latter. Countries in Eastern Hemisphere were allocated a minimum of hundred slots of immigrants. Another provision of the Act was the “aliens barred from citizenship.”

The provision massively affected countries like China, whereby despite having a minimal allocation of a hundred, only people who were not native Chinese qualified to become American citizens (Dinnerstein and Reimers 56).

Impossible Subjects discreetly reveals controversy, viz. a quota system that limited number of immigrants from all over the globe except the Western Hemisphere whilst generating an illegitimate immigration from Mexico. Ngai asserts that the quota system led to the evolution of illegal aliens. In the early 1920s, the authorities deported some illegal immigrants courtesy of the 1891 consent by the Congress.

However, deportation did not have a strong backing, as the federal government did not issue the precise period in which one had to take before being deported. The legislation of the Immigration Act in 1917 altered the statute of restriction on deportation from twelve months to five years soon after one settled in the country (Cannato 112-128).

The 1924 Act terminated the statute of restriction on deportation and introduced new guidelines for deportation. One qualified for deportation immediately he or she was determined to be residing illegally in the country, in other words, illegal immigration became a felonious act.

The quota system that governed legal immigration needed an affiliated implementation tool. In pursuit of enforcement apparatus, a new method of scrutinizing illegitimate entry into the US emerged with the evolution of the illegal alien (Triadafilopoulos 126-129).

Ngai discloses how illegal immigration became a trend not only in the era after 1965, but also in the 1920s. The incidents of unlawful immigration in the 1920s were less as compared to the era of 1965. The decreased illegal entry was mainly due to the few policies that defined what made people illegal immigrants as well as minimal surveillance (Brunner and Colarelli 389-413).

On the other hand, presumably, unlawful entry rested on the aspect of allocating only 20,000 slots for Mexicans who wanted to migrate to the U.S. Furthermore, legislation of the Immigration Act in 1965 did not tackle issues of applying race in determining national identity.

Ngai defines the “illegal alien” as an unfeasible subject whose existence is exemplified by illegality. She also refers to unlawful foreigners as an “impossible subjects” because the issue stands out as an eternal problem.

However, the book reveals factors that prompted the idiosyncratic features of legitimate and illegitimate entry, which help readers to think critically of illegal immigration as an issue that requires an urgent solution. Nonetheless, it also explains the genesis of “racialization” of illegal alien, which discourages many people whenever they attempt to solve the issue.

In immigration policies, legal and illegitimate are alterable groups. However, in the same policies, the bond between illegal alien is inseparable. The categorization of immigrants as either illegal or lawful is subject to change and thus it plays a minimal role in informing the public of the nature of an immigrant (Triadafilopoulos 126-129).

In contrast, the book informs the readers to adopt a steady culture of separating the concept of illegal immigration from racial identification. Underscoring the history of European ineligible foreigners may assist in destroying the racial identity that is used in defining unlawful aliens.

Alien Citizens

Whilst racial identity has labeled the Mexicans as illegal foreigners, Asian immigrants have been labeled as alien citizens. Disparate from immigrants who have the liberty to settle, absorb, and become citizens of the US, the alien lacks the rights of legitimate assimilation as well as citizenship. At the height of this seclusion are the Asian immigrants.

Asian seclusion in the immigration policies initially aimed at immigrants from China, the Middle East, and eventually the Pacific zone with the exception of Japan and Philippines. The constitutional seclusion of Asia was formally ratified in 1924 with the exception of the Japan. The exclusion stated that Asians could not adopt the American culture and thus they could not be naturalized to become citizens (Cannato 112-128).

The “citizen” and the “foreigner” are two disparate terms and an attempt to merge them implies a discord. The foreigner should not get involved in the activities of a citizen at any time. On the other hand, one cannot be considered as an alien after becoming a citizen. Therefore, the alien citizen is typically an “impossible subject”.

Despite this impossibility, alien citizenship has affected the Asian immigrants in the U.S. because of racial identity. Though Asian Americans became citizens through naturalization or birth, they often stand out as aliens of the American kinship throughout history. Racialization has played a central role in this seclusion by vitiating an idea that Asian immigrants are at the epic of national membership.

Ngai affirms that it would be important to separate the “state” from the “nation” because of the link of racial identity with the nation-state (Goodman 64-68). For instance, Asians that are referred as foreigners are recognized by the state and not the nation.

The partial admission by the state generated vulnerability where the identity of an individual was not determined by national apathy, but rather the apparatus under which national identity merged.

Ngai’s observation of the link between alien citizenship and family of Asian Americans as well as gender is a crucial element (Brunner and Colarelli 389-413). The law that governs permanent inhabitants of the US has provision that stipulates supposition of a heterosexual family.

In the eyes of a racist, the Chinese male immigrant is a sexually abnormal individual who has failed to lure the Chinese women whilst a Chinese woman is an assumptive prostitute. These assumptions had a direct reflection in the patterns of immigration, which were designed by immigration policies (Dinnerstein and Reimers 98).

Moreover, some laws deprived Chinese immigrants the right to have children within the US, thus disclosing how much the Asians were considered as aliens and not worthy of being American citizens, since the family is the basis of any society (Goodman 64-68).

Impossible Subjects does not utterly discuss the theme of gender. The author leaves the reader with a doubtful conclusion of the manner in which the rules and regulations discussed in the book affected the female gender and how assumptions of gender promoted the ratification of the immigration laws.

The emblematic link that merges nation and family is sturdy and it is incomprehensible why exclusionary laws that touched on national identity failed to tackle the issue of kinship as well as reproduction.

The idea that Asian immigrants have poor domestic relationship had a massive influence on the Japanese American incarceration camps. Ngai asserts that the issue of incarceration camps is one of the most excessive forms of compulsion taken by the U.S. government on immigrants as disclosed by history records (Brunner and Colarelli 389-413).

The U.S. incarcerated 80,000 American citizens together with 40,000 aliens in detention camps from 1942 to 1945. Immigrants from Japan lost their American citizenships after their termination. The orders issued on the military to monitor the evacuation literally rendered the citizenship of 80,000 Japanese extinct (Dinnerstein and Reimers 78).

The military directed all Japanese residents and non-residents to gather at specified areas for emigration. Clearly, citizens are disparate from aliens. A citizen enjoys a series of rights and guarantees, which the state must respect, but aliens rarely enjoy these privileges.

However, by integrating national identity and the opponent foreign status referred to as “Japanese ancestry” coupled with detaining citizens during the era of war, weakened the link between Japan and the US (Triadafilopoulos 126-129).

Ngai applies various philosophies of citizenship to exemplify the laws that legislated against the Americans of Japanese origin through the incarceration. In the detention camps, the Asians were violently taught the American cultures in an effort to assimilate them into the American system. Among those in the internment were young Japanese children, who had acquired American citizenship by birth.

These children were being denied the rights that the constitution guaranteed them as American citizens. Ngai explains that the lessons in the incarceration camps focused on assimilating the Japanese first before informing them of their rights as Americans.

The Japanese Americans were distressed by the manner in which the War Relocation Authority (WRA) conducted the programs of assimilating them into American culture. At best, the programs were discordant and flippant.

Moreover, Impossible Subjects reminds the readers of the Denationalization Act that was passed by the Congress in 1944. The law sanctioned voluntary actions made by citizens to denounce their citizenship as long as the move did not have a damaging effect on the country.

The US government designed the voluntary denunciation to separate loyal Japanese Americans from the treacherous ones, which pushed numerous Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship because the U.S. was compelling them to denounce their loyalty to Japan and join the American armed forces (Goodman 64-68).

Notably, Ngai states that one of historical occasion that rarely features in literature is the Chinese Confession Program. This program tackled the unlawful immigration that promoted the development Chinese immigrants population. According to Ngai, twenty percent of immigrants from China entered the US through illegitimate means. The illegal immigration principally hinged on the absence of structures to verify identity.

The book demonstrates an upwardly growth of evidentiary demands that paradoxically formulated the recording of citizenship. The records of Chinese Americans origin who were confirmed to be illegal immigrants rose from 1,336 to 19,124 by 1965. Though some were deported, most of them gained legal status.

However, the relatives of illegal Chinese immigrants, who were still in Hong Kong, were barred from entering into the US. The aftermath of this move was radical opposition from Chinese immigrants who criticized the government’s move to deem the whole community as evil.

Ngai affirms that the role of her book is to provide a solution to the foundational impediments that have been affecting the association between independence, nationality, and immigration.

She states that if people cannot separate independence from immigration, then they should disengage it from nation-state concepts and consider them as products of the past. After achieving this aspect, then the country will appreciate that sovereign privilege to verify membership must not be absolute.


Ngai anticipates that her chef-d’oeuvre, Impossible Subjects, will result to intrepid reformations. Through the book, readers can foresee this intrepid change in the way she modifies their knowledge of immigration history. She also informs the audience of the constructed as well as reliant nature of the constitutional governance of immigration.

This book is among the numerous writings of Mae Ngai that can be endorsed as fundamental readings. All Americans are descendants of “impossible subjects” and thus through revealing an archive as well as examination that has been concealed over the decades, they should remember why they should accept each other irrespective of one’s racial identity.

Works Cited

Brunner, Lawrence, and Stephen Colarelli. “Immigration in the twenty-first century: A personnel selection approach.” Independent Review 14.3 (2010): 389-413. Print.

Cannato, Vincent. “Our evolving immigration policy.” National Affairs 13.1 (2012): 112- 128. Print.

Dinnerstein, Leonard, and David Reimers. Ethnic Americans: Immigration and American Society, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Print.

Goodman, Adam. “A nation of (deported) immigrants.” Dissent 58.2 (2011): 64-68. Print.

Triadafilopoulos, Triadafilos. “The Limits of Deliberation: Institutions and American Immigration Policy.” Society 47.2 (2010): 126-129. Print.

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