Saturday, January 19, 2013

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens & The Making of Modern America by Mae Ngai

Ngai argues that immigration policy is fundamentally about citizenship, who is allowed to become a citizen and who is excluded from citizenship. Citizenship matters because it is citizenship that gives an individual the right to have rights within the State (Ngai, 229). With legal rights the immigrant group can vie for economic and political power within the State.

Once the criteria for citizenship which immigrants must meet (e.g. race, class, occupation, acceptable annual number of immigrants who can be absorbed into the economy) is created, an entire new category of unacceptable immigrants is also created, the excludable, the illegal alien who defies the criteria. Thus while the formal mechanisms of immigration policy stand “triple guard to repel legal immigration”; illegal immigrants swarm in at the back door (e.g. although the number of acceptable legal immigrants to the U.S. in 1953 could be measured in the hundreds of thousands, The New York Times estimated that in 1953 some 1.5 million illegal immigrants entered the United States)(Ngai, 247). The ongoing debate over which immigrants are acceptable and which are excludable is central to the fluctuating power relationships within the country. Ngai traces the transformation of U.S. immigration policy from race superiority to multiculturalism based largely on the shifting power relationships (e.g. the war against Fascism and the need to placate allies, the Cold War and the need to embrace the world role as “leader of the free world”).

Ngai indicates that illegal immigration is the central and singularly intractable problem of immigration policy (Ngai, 265). Ngai intimates why this is so without engaging the issue in sufficient depth. Macro-economic forces create the need for labor. Immigration is encouraged to fill this need. The immigration policy of the State manages the human aspects the importation of cheap labor based on the social norms and needs of the State. (Thus “guest worker” programs or contract labor programs are often acceptable to nativists while legal immigration which implies the ultimate achievement of economic and political rights is not.) Ultimately the entire notion of importing cheap immigrant labor (or for that matter siphoning off the top professionals from emerging economies, the so-called brain drain) supports a pyramid of economic self-interest, what Ngai cites as socio-political selfishness (Ngai, 252). At a micro level, immigration is not about the equitable distribution of the fruits of production, it is about maximizing the economic good of the employer. (Thus the Texas farmer preferred to employ illegal Mexicans rather than legal Mexican “braceros”, because the illegals were cheaper, more docile, and did not require as much “red tape”) (Ngai, 255). At a macro-level immigration policy aims at economic progress to create a “national island of relatively homogenous and comfortable people” (Ngai, 252).

Ngai correctly indicates that immigration policy within nation states is not keeping pace with the fluid trans-national movement of capital and labor, “It may be that illegal immigration will persist as long as the world remains divided into sovereign nation-states and as long as there remains an unequal distribution of wealth among them” (Ngai, 269). It is the economic needs of employers that fuels illegal immigration when legal immigration does not satisfy those needs. The employer acts to optimize his economic utility at the expense of the citizen worker, the illegal alien and the broader society.

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