5 Questions on the Midterms with Immigration Expert Mae Ngai

November 02, 2018
Mae Ngai sitting in front of a bookshelf

At the turn of the last 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. Can you explain the correlation between the history of racism and citizenship in the United States?

A. We think about American citizenship as universal and color-blind, but throughout U.S. history citizenship has been withheld or denied to many groups, most notably to African Americans (both free and enslaved) before the Civil War and later to Chinese and other Asians under the exclusion laws (in effect from the 1880s to 1952). Although the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all persons born on U.S. soil, Chinese and other Asian immigrants remained barred from naturalization until the post-World War II era.  Although legal immigrants (lawful permanent residents) may naturalize after five years of residence, those who are undocumented have no path to citizenship without legalization.  During the mid-20th century the government legalized the status of European immigrants who lacked status; and in 1986 Congress allowed for the legalization of nearly 3 million undocumented people, many of them from Mexico, Latin America, and Asia. The government’s resistance to legalizing undocumented immigrants today, which would give them a path to citizenship, rests in antipathy towards immigrants from the global south.

Q. What is the social and economic impact of undocumented migration vs. legal immigration?

A. Undocumented migrants contribute to our economy and society in myriad ways. They work in service, construction and manufacturing, and they create new jobs with benefits for consumers across the socio-economic spectrum—think about nail salon workers, domestic workers, restaurant workers.  They also contribute to the economy as consumers. But undocumented migrants are often paid less than minimum wage and denied access to benefits like Medicaid and food stamps, which assist the working poor.  And of course, they live in fear of apprehension and removal.

Q. Are they, as some claim, a drain on the government?

A. Many undocumented immigrants pay income taxes and contribute to Social Security, although they will never receive those benefits. There are high social costs to undocumented migration, such as the creation of a “caste” of people who have few or no rights, who are shut out of the polity, and whose reluctance to engage with (or their exclusion from) institutions like public health programs, community policing, and the like.

Q. What would be the type of U.S. border policies that may work better in the future?

A. The United States grants about a million green cards (permanent residency) a year. More than half go to people already in the country who are adjusting their status—say, an international student who gets a job after graduation, and her new employer sponsors her for a green card, or a foreigner who marries a U.S. citizen. The numerical limit on legal immigration is arguably low, in light of ongoing unauthorized migration that meets ongoing labor-market demand. The other problem with the current system is that no country can receive more than seven percent of the maximum, or 26,500 a year. That rule applies to all countries, like Mexico, India, Belgium and New Zealand equally. We can raise the ceiling and change the method of allocation.

Q. Are there other solutions?

A. We should also establish a statute of limitations on unlawful presence. This would recognize that all immigrants, including the unauthorized, establish ties when they live and work here, ties that become stronger over time. A statute of limitations would recognize that they are, in fact, “members” of our society and, work against the accretion of the undocumented population.  We should also not treat asylum seekers as though they are illegal immigrants. That move, which is the policy of the current administration, is unlawful according to both U.S. and international law.

—By Sabina Lee