5 Questions on Immigration with History Professor Mae Ngai

June 20, 2018

At the turn of the 20th century, as an influx of Europeans entered the United States, many politicians and native-born Americans worried that they would depress wages and take the jobs of citizens. The issue roiled American politics, and anti-immigrant sentiment drove calls for a strict immigration law.

"It was common then, as it is today, to hear that immigrants don’t want to become Americans, that they are prone to crime, disease, laziness, clannishness, and radicalism,” says Mae Ngai (GSAS’98), the Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and a professor of history. “This administration is pursuing a similar massive reduction of legal immigration and a system that favors immigration from Europe.”

Author of the award-winning book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, Ngai is an authority on immigration, citizenship, nationalism, and U.S. legal and political history. She is featured in a new documentary for PBS's American Experience series, The Chinese Exclusion Act by filmmaker Ric Burns (CC’78 and GSAS’83).

Q. How does today’s rhetoric about immigrants compare to that of the early 20th century?

A. The president’s recent comment that Latino immigrants are “animals” echoes statements made 100 years ago, that East and South European immigrants were “brutes.” And in May, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reprised another stereotype from the early twentieth century, that today’s immigrants would not “easily assimilate into the United States. They don’t speak English. They don’t integrate well. They don’t have skills.”

The pro-immigration discourse of that time was different, however. Those who opposed nativism generally did so on grounds that immigrants could be Americanized, that the “melting pot” would absorb immigrants into the dominant culture. The vision of America as “a nation of immigrants,” came only after World War II, invented by descendants of early 20th-century immigrants.

Q. How has the United States restricted immigration in the past?

A. The first major restriction was the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882. That was the first and only time the U.S. excluded an ethnic group by name. It was passed in response to agitation that Chinese were an “unassimilable” race. It was not repealed until 1943. In 1924 Congress for the first time imposed a numerical ceiling on immigration, just 150,000 from an average one million a year during the 1910s. The act had quotas that blatantly favored northern and western Europeans and disadvantaged southern and eastern Europeans, and it excluded all Asians. During the 1930s and 1940s, the federal government created ways to legalize those present without legal status, but mostly favored Europeans.

In 1965, Congress replaced national origin quotas with an immigration system based on global numerical quotas and preferences for family unification and employment. Now we have stringent laws like “mandatory removal” and “expedited removal” which make it almost impossible to challenge a deportation order or change one’s status.

Q. Does the current situation, especially separating parents and children, compare with Japanese internment during World War II?

A.. The Japanese American internment did not separate children from parents. Rather, entire families were put into concentration camps. Two-thirds of the 120,000 interned were actually minors and American-born citizens. But the U.S. does have an ugly history of separating children from their parents—most notably, the break up of enslaved people’s families by sales and the forcible removal of Indian children to boarding schools.

Q. Are there other approaches?

A. One method of restricting immigration would be a point system, where applicants get points for education or financial assets or knowledge of English. They might get a few points for having family in the U.S., but without a high level of education or a fat bank account, prospective immigrants would not have enough points to gain admission. There are both ethical and practical problems with such a system. Immigration should be about more than attracting people with high skills or capital assets. We should unify families and support ordinary working people who want to make a better life for themselves and their families.

As long as there are lower-skilled and lower-paying jobs in restaurants, home-care, construction, agriculture and food processing, immigrants will come, with or without documents. Those who come without authorization will be forced to work and live in the shadows and in terror that they can be picked up at any time by immigration enforcement agents.

Q. What is the immigrant experience in the U.S. today?

A.  Immigration is much more diverse than in the past. Immigrants today live across the U.S. and work in both high and lower skilled sectors. More Americans are likely to have immigrants as neighbors or coworkers. Notwithstanding the rhetoric and policies of the current administration, polling data show that most Americans do not support mass deportations or a sharp reduction in legal immigration.

—Eric Sharfstein