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Manufacturing Illegality

Historian Mae Ngai reflects on how a century of immigration law created a crisis.
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In her book Impossible Subjects, Ngai traces the history of United States immigration policy from its origins in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 up through the 1965 immigration act.

The book charts “the historical origins of the ‘illegal alien’ in American law and society and the emergence of illegal immigration as the central problem of U.S. immigration policy in the twentieth century,” Ngai writes. It locates that genesis in the “restrictive immigration laws that Congress legislated in the 1920s and the border-control measures implemented thereafter. Positive domestic law, not race, culture, or bad character, produced ‘illegal aliens’ — an insight that would be not be so novel but for pervasive stereotyping of Mexicans and other Latinos and Latinas in twentieth-century American society.”

The Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, “marked both the end of one era, that of open immigration from Europe, and the beginning of a new one, the era of immigration restriction,” Ngai wrote. “The law placed numerical limits on immigration and established a quota system that classified the world’s population according to nationality and race, ranking them in a hierarchy of desirability for admission into the United States.”

The decades from 1890 to 1920 had witnessed probably the largest influx of immigrants relative to population in U.S. history, primarily from southern and eastern Europe. “Paradoxically”, she wrote, “the quota system, while closing America’s gates to the ‘undesirable races’ of southern and eastern Europe, redrew the color line around Europe instead of through it. The law also continued the explicitly racial exclusion from immigration and naturalization of Chinese and other Asian nationalities codified in laws of the late 19th Century.”

Ngai continues: “Restriction also demanded a system of visa controls to track the allocation of quotas and border surveillance to ensure that only persons with the proper documents entered the country. The new regime had two major consequences: it remapped the ethno-racial contours of the nation and generated illegal immigration as the central problem in immigration law.”

The primary sponsors of the 1924 law were Representative Albert Johnson of Washington, and Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania. Both were leaders of the restrictionist movement, and both were notably motivated by eugenics and pseudo-scientific theories of race in vogue at the time. These theories went on to become the underpinnings of Nazi ideology, and its social and racial policies, in Germany.

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