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Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America)

3.96  ·  Rating Details ·  568 Ratings  ·  20 Reviews

This book traces the origins of the "illegal alien" in American law and society, explaining why and how illegal migration became the central problem in U.S. immigration policy--a process that profoundly shaped ideas and practices about citizenship, race, and state authority in the twentieth century.
Mae Ngai offers a close reading of the legal regime of restriction that com
Paperback, 400 pages
Published August 28th 2005 by Princeton University Press (first published 2003)
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Feb 05, 2007 Hannah rated it it was amazing
A very slow read but definitely worth it. Anyone who thinks illegal immigrants are taking over the country needs to pull his head out of his ass and read this.
If you are interested in immigration issues, you need to read this book. Mae Ngai examines the legal and ideological ways in which the subject of the illegal alien was formed. She has been faulted (correctly) for beginning her book in 1924 - that is not paying enough attention to the importance of the Asian exclusion laws (covered in a book like Erika Lee's At America's Gates). Nevertheless this book is unique and thorough and interesting.

"Immigration restriction produced the illegal alien as a
Jan 21, 2013 Stephanie rated it it was ok
This book is very informative but also a very slow read. It was a lot of the author making a vague claim then saying, "Let's look at the history." and launching into a too-long explanation.
Oct 02, 2011 Mandy rated it liked it
I am in no way an expert on this area of American history, so to me this book was pretty informative just in terms of filling in a fairly sketchy understanding of the history of immigration. The section on the construction of the illegal alien was particularly interesting. I do think the trajectory of Asian-Americans from "menace" to "model minority" could've been more fully articulated, and I would have also liked to read more about the relationships between different immigrant groups, instead ...more
Joseph Stieb
Mar 08, 2015 Joseph Stieb rated it liked it
This book is about the changing definitions of illegal alien and their connections to race, politics, and nationalism. The book ranges over a number of topics, including Mexican migrant workers, Chinese immigration/restriction, Japanese internment, and the liberal campaign to reform immigration in the 1960's. Some of these chapters were compelling, especially the discussion of reforms in the 50's and 60's. Still, this book is very dense, difficult to read, and not particularly well-written. Ther ...more
Nov 01, 2011 Ashley rated it liked it
Shelves: what-i-study, history
Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects, a sociological and legal history, traces the evolution of the “illegal alien’s” position in early 20th century American life. She focuses on the period between the imposition of national origin quotas in 1924 and their penultimate reform by the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. Impossible Subjects owes an intellectual and evidentiary debt to Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race . Ngai accepts that “whiteness” ...more
Mar 18, 2016 Zac rated it it was amazing
This book challenges the assumption that "illegal" means "bad" in the case of immigration. It also asks us what citizenship really means, when the whims of Congress change its definition. What are the implications, we might ask, of harboring Americans -- ensconced in their communities -- that are not citizens?

Well-written and well-researched.
Jul 27, 2010 david rated it liked it
very comprehensive history and very good and important book, though i have to say based on how good other folks told me it was, i'm a bit disappointed. especially with the discussion of organized labor. the book sort of took up the worst of organized labor to make a slightly crude analysis of their white supremacy which was real esp. in leadership, but did not reflect the struggles and tensions around racism within labor unions (see Lipsitz). also, anyone know of a book on immigration history of ...more
Ngai's was one of the first books to really tackle the history of Asian, Mexican, and other immigrants who came to America illegally. An instant classic.
May 16, 2007 Bri rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: historians
Shelves: americanhistory
Key book in immigration policy. Traces the racializing of citizenship between the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. Discusses the idea of constructing the "illegal alien." National quotas, racism, border patrol,'s all in here.

On a more practical level it's a great book for understanding where American immigration law and policy comes from, and what the debate is about these days.

I wouldn't recommend this book to the general reader, however. The legal hi
Scott Schneider
Apr 30, 2013 Scott Schneider rated it really liked it
Immigration is a hot topic now. This book, while a bit academic, provides a great perspective on the issue by reviewing the history of immigration policy, particularly during the 1920s- 1960s in the US. Ngai has chapters on Mexican immigration, Filipino immigration, Chinese and Japanese immigrants. It shows the racial nature of immigration restriction. It also shows the tension between opening borders and restricting them, which inevitably leads to illegal immigration. Not an easy read, but a fa ...more
Doris Raines
Mar 28, 2016 Doris Raines rated it really liked it
A. Extranoary. Book. And. Back. Ground.
Jul 19, 2012 Cyndi rated it really liked it
Shelves: school
The scholar Mae Ngai explores the world of immigration from developing countries with emphasis on Filipino and Mexican nations. I like her writing style though it can be very academic at times. Ngai does balance with personal narratives to bring the reader into the lives of those experiencing racial prejudice. Ngai actually gives some concrete steps of how to effect change, which is refreshing.
Mar 29, 2016 Victoria rated it liked it
3.5 stars.
I got lost a few times but it was a solid read.
Jun 22, 2012 Rebecca rated it it was amazing
Excellent - situates current understandings of "foreign"-ness with immigration policy over the last century. Especially loved the sections about how different populations came to be seen (simply because of policy!) as permanently "illegal".
Mar 26, 2009 Jess rated it really liked it
I never really considered how important illegal aliens are to our economy and American lives as a whole. This book brings up really intriguing concepts.
Aug 02, 2010 Ivy rated it really liked it
Shelves: grad-school
my favorite book from my thesis research
Feb 12, 2008 Anjali rated it it was amazing
history at its best.
Dec 15, 2008 AJ rated it it was amazing
this b00k rulez!
Oct 20, 2010 Karla rated it really liked it
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Mae Ngai is a professor of Asian American Studies and History at Columbia University.
More about Mae M. Ngai...

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