Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and Alien Citizens

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Michigan Law Review, Vol. 103, No. 106, May 2005

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Leti Volpp
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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. In a stunning and beautifully written book, 'Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America' (Princeton, 2003), historian Mae Ngai directs our attention to a history that has been occluded in this 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 epoch, the most comprehensive immigration restriction in U.S. history, literally remapped the nation. Throughout the book, Ngai reminds us that what we experience today as "common sense" in terms of our immigration law and policy is historically contingent. What we believe to be hardened borders of citizenship and immigrant status have in actuality been enormously malleable. Both citizens and aliens have been "made" and "unmade," through both acts of the state and the individual. And the border between the "legal" and the "illegal" has been porous. At the heart of the book, are the questions of illegality in immigration and how illegal immigration came to be cast as the central problem of U.S. immigration policy in the twentieth century. This review begins by examining Ngai's analysis of the historical construction of the "illegal alien" through what may seem, at first blush, paradoxical: the regulation of legal immigration. I discuss this history in light of President George W. Bush's proposal to create a new guest-worker program, as well as Samuel Huntington's controversial new book, 'Who Are We', which calls for curbing immigration from Mexico, in light of its threat to "American national identity." I then turn to Ngai's discussion of "alien citizens," persons who enjoy the formal status of citizenship as an immigration matter, but lack citizenship as a matter of identity. Ngai analyzes a relationship between migrancy, nationalism, and war that is made visible in the renunciation by 5,500 Japanese Americans in internment camps of their U.S. citizenship during World War II, as well as the legalization of 30,000 Chinese Americans who "confessed" their illegal immigration status during the Cold War period. I consider the concept of alien citizens in light of the present "war on terror." Impossible Subjects requires that we abandon our amnesia about policies creating illegal aliens and alien citizens, forgettings that have been constituent to our national identity. This powerful book alters our vision of immigration, in showing us the constructed and contingent nature of its legal regulation.