Mae Ngai Provides Critical Context for the History of Immigration and Labor in U.S.

Ted Rabinowitz
July 01, 2014

Mae Ngai’s interest in the history of immigration and labor began when she was a high school student in the 1960s.

“I was active in civil rights issues and the anti-war movement. I became a community activist in Chinatown and that led to a position with the United Auto Workers District 65,” recalls Ngai, Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History.

In her role as a community organizer with the UAW on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she worked in the education and political action department, administering classes in English as a Second Language, GED preparation and basic literacy. Ngai also worked with the UAW on political campaigns for Jesse Jackson and David Dinkins, and helped organize Nelson Mandela’s first visit to New York in 1990 after he was released from prison.

After years in the labor movement, Ngai felt the need to “take a step back and think about the big questions” of social justice. Naturally she looked to Columbia, where both of her parents were on the faculty.

Her father, the late Dr. Shih-hsun Ngai, began his career at Columbia Presbyterian in 1949 and went on to become the chair of the anesthesiology department at the College of Physicians & Surgeons. Dr. Hsueh-hwa Wang, his wife, is professor emerita of pharmacology at P&S.

Ngai is the author of two books: the prizewinning Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2003) and The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (2010); and editor of a textbook, Major Problems in American Immigration History (2011). Her commentary and opinion have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation and more. She is currently working on a history of Chinese gold miners.

Q: What motivated you to study history and to focus where you did?

A: I’m like many people who move from organizing and activism into academia. You can become very busy working on immediate issues, but at a certain point you need to step back and think about the big questions: We know what’s wrong, but why? How did it get that way? I started out studying labor history. Then I became interested in the history of immigrant workers, because that was where my own experience had been. I knew that many Chinese labor activists in the United States were persecuted with immigration law. That’s the easiest way to get rid of somebody—throw them out of the country. And so I became interested in immigration law and policy.


Immigration’s Border-Enforcement Myth, The New York Times, Jan 28, 2018

In Trump’s Immigration Remarks, Echoes of a Century-Old Racial Ranking, The New York Times, Jan 13, 2018

As 2020 Census Approaches, Worries Rise of a Political Crisis After the Count, NPR, Oct 12, 2017

Q: Do you have a specific approach to teaching history?

A: I’m a big fan of having students work with primary source documents, historical texts and a variety of texts with different points of view, so that students can consider the complexity of issues in context. It’s very easy for students to judge the past according to our own values, but we also have to understand how social values change over time.

Q: What is the current focus of your research?

A: I’m working on a book called Yellow and Gold: the Chinese Gold-Mining Diaspora. It’s a history of Chinese gold miners and the “Chinese question” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m looking at the sites of three gold rushes: California, the Australian colony of Victoria, and the South African colony of the Transvaal. I’m interested in the experience of these miners and how anti-Chinese racial politics arose in these locations, and yet how there was also a trans- Pacific traffic of ideas and cross-national influences.

Q: Is there a big issue that historians face today?

A: I think one of the big challenges is transnational history. The discipline of history has traditionally been organized around the concept of the nation-state as a unit of analysis, both as the way we think of history and as the way we organize the discipline. With a transnational focus, the research demands are greater. If you want to work in archives in more than one country or region, you have to master a lot more in terms of language and historiography. And transnationalism is not just comparison: It’s also looking at how ideas and events influence other parts of the world. It affects ethnic studies, too. Ethnic studies originated as part of American studies, a movement to understand the American experience in terms of its diversity and how race is mobilized as a form of power, but looking beyond the United States can enhance ethnic studies. For instance, to understand the experience of slavery in the United States, you need to understand it in its broader context of European politics, the slave trade, and the plantation system in the Caribbean. The way Latinos and Asian Americans are positioned in a racial order in this country has a lot to do with histories of colonialism and imperialism abroad.

Q: You’ve spoken of immigration policy in the U. S. creating a permanent underclass. Can you expand on that?

A: The United States has a global ceiling on the number of immigrants who can come in every year. No country can have more than 7 percent of that number. So, for example, India has the same maximum limit as New Zealand. Only four countries every year max out on their quota: Mexico, India, China and the Philippines. The system seems equal, but unlike the Civil Rights Act, which treats every individual equally, this treats every country equally. But countries aren’t equal, not in size, not in need, and that’s why we have a skewed system: there’s no wait for a green card if you come from New Zealand, but there’s up to a 40- year wait if you are from one of those four countries. We used to have a statute of limitations on unlawful presence. After one to five years, depending on the category, you were no longer deportable. The policy recognized that, for better or for worse, immigrants became part of our society. There are statutes of limitations on nearly every offense except for murder, treason, kidnapping… and crossing the border without documentation. That’s why we have an accretion of 11 million-plus people in the U.S. illegally. Too many Americans are fixated on their status and fail to appreciate the contributions they have made to the economy and the roots they have established in communities. Every 25 years or so we have an agonizing national debate: You can’t throw out millions of people, so what do you do?

Q: You’ve made the point that the United States actually has a history of being unwelcoming to immigrants. Has that always been true?

A: We pretty much had an open door until the 1920s. Chinese and other Asians were the main exception. Only 2 percent of the people who showed up at Ellis Island during the peak years at the turn of the century were sent back. We had no numerical restrictions on immigration. That changed to a restrictive system with complicated quotas that were doled out based on race and national origin. That’s the origin of unauthorized or illegal immigration.

Q: What does your work at the Columbia Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race involve?

A: I have a quarter appointment there and teach one of the required courses called “Colonization/ Decolonization.” It’s designed to help students think about questions of race and ethnicity in the United States in broader global and colonial context. Starting in July, I will also be the interim director for a year while our director is on leave. The center has over 50 undergraduate students concentrating in comparative race and ethnic studies. There’s a very popular program in Native American and indigenous studies, and we also have Latino and Asian American studies. This year and next, we’re featuring a program of events that focus on transnational Asian American studies. Last fall we organized a successful program with some of the founders of Asian American Writers Workshop, established in the 1990s, where they talked about what it meant to be an Asian American and a writer in New York in the ’90s. In the spring we had a guest lecture by Professor Takashi Fujitani from the University of Toronto, author of Race for Empire. It’s about Koreans who fought in the Japanese Army and Japanese- Americans who fought in the U.S. Army during World War II, and it looks at how both the United States and Japan incorporated racialized others into their citizenry in order to get them to fight in their armies. This coming fall we will hold a program on the so-called “model minority,” with some of the leading scholars in the U.S. who study this question from historical and sociological angles.

Q: What are your thoughts on the idea that Asians represent a “model minority?”

A: Nobody realizes that this is actually a product of immigration policy. Since 1965, when immigration law was reformed and every country got the same quota, there have been two ways you could come in. One is if you have relatives in the United States, and the other is through occupational preferences. Because of the long history of the Asian exclusion laws, there weren’t that many Asian Americans in 1965, so the first wave of Asian immigrants who came around 1970 came under the occupational quotas. These quotas are professional and technical, so the preponderance of Asian immigrants from that time came from the professional classes. Once they became established they could bring their relatives over, who were from the same socioeconomic strata. So there is a community of well-educated, middle-class Asian Americans built over 30 or 40 years as a direct result of American immigration policy. I think the model-minority idea is pernicious. It erases all the Asian American kids who don’t do well, and it’s unfair to the kids who do do well because it obscures how hard they work. People say, “It just comes to them,” or “It’s genetic,” or “It’s cultural.” It’s also used against other minority groups who don’t do as well. “Why can’t you be like the Asians?” But those groups don’t have those generations of privilege.

Q: What do you consider the status of race relations in the U.S. today?

A: One problem we face is a structural racism that seems to be invisible to many Americans. For example, the evisceration of urban public education directly affects minority groups. The high incarceration rates of blacks and Latinos is not a cultural problem, it’s a structural problem that involves education, employment, drugs and drug laws. We also have incredible inequality in wealth, which has been increasing since the mid-1970s, but wasn’t on the public radar until recently, and that is disproportionate in its racial effects as well. On the other hand, we have a culture that in many ways recognizes the value of diversity. We have an African American president. The young generation today is much less racial in its thinking. They are more likely to have friends from other groups. There is more inclusiveness culturally. But one of the biggest problems we have today is that people are tired of race talk. They want to think we’re post-racial. So the structural challenges we have are even greater because there’s a denial of those problems through the talk of post-racialism. That, I think, is very dangerous.