Reading Response – Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae Ngai

Ngai’s main argument is that illegal aliens were created through acts of positive law rather than through bad character, conduct, race or culture. In other words, prior to legislation that designated certain individuals as being in the country illegally, the category did not exist. Further, she argues that illegal immigration is a necessary by-product of a restrictive immigration process and that, in the American context, illegal immigration was not a side-channel to legal immigration. She argues instead that illegal immigration was used as a primary means of entering the U.S. by many immigrants and played a major role in populating the country. It seems that what she is attempting to clarify is the fact that many people immigrated to the country illegally, but found ways to have their status legalized after the fact, with the moral implications of illegal entry being dependent on race and the time-period examined.

While touching briefly on Filipinos, Japanese, and Chinese immigrants, Ngai’s narrative focuses primarily on migrants and immigrants from Mexico and how their experience has shaped the modern discourse regarding illegal aliens in the United States. She presents Mexicans as the archetypal illegal immigrant in the American imagination. In Ngai’s view, the focus on Mexicans as illegal immigrants is a result of the border culture in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico as well as U.S. labor practices and policies. Ngai’s aim seems to be to show that the push by southwestern agriculturalists for cheap labor drove the importation, legal and otherwise, of Mexican laborers. Because the legal avenues for migration for work purposes became increasingly odious, many Mexicans preferred to cross into the country illegally.  The best example she gives for this is the bracero program, which put Mexicans in a situation that left them generally worse off than if they hired themselves out on an individual basis.

Ngai’s argument is reasonable. She points out that illegal immigration from Mexico was the result of a failure on the part of the U.S. government to create adequate structures for legal entry by Mexican workers. She also points out that the drive for cheap labor that created the bracero program was based on a failure of the U.S. government to stand up to greedy agriculturalists and insist on fair wages for American workers. Ngai argues that this happened because the way people thought of America as a nation shifted. Laws were created to create the desired legal population. This shift created avenues for Europeans to become legalized but left Mexicans excluded from belonging to the nation in the American imagination. This exclusion was also the case for Japanese and Chinese immigrants, regardless of their legal or illegal status and whether they were citizens by naturalization or birth.

Ngai’s use of the Japanese and Filipino experience in the context of illegal immigration seems out of place. Did she include these groups to present a broader contrast between the way that Asiatic and Latin American immigrants were treated in comparison to Europeans? The experiences of these groups show that racism played a part in defining European Americans’ view of the nation, but “nullification” of citizenship rights and decolonization with voluntary repatriation are not the same as being considered an illegal entrant. The concept of being illegal connotes a violation of the law and a lack of citizenship status. For the Japanese, or at least the Nisei, their citizenship was never in question and neither was the legality of their status as Americans. The Issei did not enter the country illegally. They did not have access to citizenship but they were accepted legally, if not socially, as residents. With the Filipinos, repatriation was voluntary, rather than forced, indicating that their position was not illegal in the sense that they could be forcefully deported in an immigration sweep like Operation Wetback.

Ngai’s work is especially important in the way that it reveals the underlying assumptions about how the national body was viewed and how that view created the legal structures that created illegal immigrants. The immigration system was constructed in a way that ignored existing labor migration and pandered to the desire of agriculturalists to maximize profit with cheap labor. The willingness of Mexicans to take on jobs that were considered low paying to Americans fed into a racial image of Mexicans as undeveloped, while simultaneously painting them as lazy or arrogant if they refused to be cheated out of their wages or benefits. The Mexican stereotype that developed seems to have been applied to all non-European immigrants and work like Ngai’s helps to correct that historical narrative.

Talking Politics With A Cab Driver

You ever get in a cab with a driver that is really eager to chat?  What choice do you have?  You’re sort of a captive audience.  Sometimes I try to deter them by giving short answers, but this guy seemed really excited about sharing his point of view.  The conversation started out with a brief ‘how are you’, ‘where you from’, ‘what do you do’ introduction.  That was followed by the typical ‘Singapore is so safe and clean’ and ‘the weather is so nice’ dialogue.  Then he started laying out his ideas, dreams and visions for Singapore.

Nothing he said was really new to me.  I’d seen it all before on various Singapore politics websites, like Temasek Review for instance, or on some Straits Times articles.  Still, it was interesting to hear a guy going apeshit about politics to me, when the policies in question don’t really affect me all that much.  Maybe he just wanted an opinion from someone who wasn’t all that biased.

His main complaints were about foreigners in Singapore.  He stated that they were causing too many problems for locals and that it wasn’t fair that foreigners often received better treatment than native born Singaporeans.  He mentioned the problem with first generation PRs not doing National Service.  He mentioned how Singaporean youth have to compete with foreigners for jobs, and how he feels that the foreigners coming into the country are no longer supporting the country, but rather are taking it over.

As he reached the climax of his venting he nearly clipped a curb.  I’m glad I had my seatbelt on!  The topic was serious but I was really entertained by this old man’s passion for his country.  The last thing he mentioned is that he felt that all the foreigners coming into the country and staying were changing the culture and he wasn’t sure it was for the best.  He said that foreigners are raised in a different environment and it’s not the same as how Singaporeans are raised, and that they’ll pass that on to their kids, which may cause problems.

Then he asked me what I thought about it.  Hmm… how to respond?

Instead of discussing such a sensitive issue with him, I instead tried to relate it to something that I do have a good grasp of and that’s the illegal immigration issue in the US.  So, I mentioned to him how there’s a similar problem in the US, with illegal immigrants entering the country, putting their kids in schools without paying taxes, getting health care, etc, etc.

Just about then we arrived at my destination and I was spared from having to dance around the subject any more.

Singapore provides a lot of opportunity to foreigners looking for work, but the policy also causes a lot of displeasure among locals.  I’ll leave it at that, but feel free to leave your opinion in the comment section, as long as it’s tactful and doesn’t contain racial slurs.