Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and Alien Citizens

America is a nation of immigrants, according to our national narrative. This is the America with its gates open to the world, as well as the America of the melting pot. Underpinning this national narrative is a very particular story of immigration that foregrounds the inclusion of immigrants, rather than their exclusion. Highlighted in this story is the period before 1924, of relatively unfettered European immigration, and the period after 1965, post the lifting of national origins quotas. Also underlying this national narrative is a particular story about what happens once immigrants enter. In this story the immigrant traverses smoothly from settlement to assimilation and then citizenship. This social experience is accompanied by a teleology of legal categorization, whereby the immigrant is first lawfully admitted as a permanent resident, and then naturalizes to become a citizen. In a stunning and beautifully written book, historian Mae Ngai directs our attention to a history occluded in our national narrative of immigration and citizenship. Impossible Subjects examines the woefully understudied period between 1924 and 1965, the tenure of the national origins quota system. This era began with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act in 1924 and ended with the lifting of national origins quotas with the passage of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. This epoch, the most comprehensive immigration restriction in U.S. history, literally “remapped the nation” (p. 3). The period of 1924 through 1965 remapped the nation by developing both a particular racial and ethnic identity and a “new sense of territoriality” (p. 3). Broad-based immigration exclusion created a heightened sense of national borders as well as the state surveillance of those borders, which helped produce what we now know as the “illegal alien.”