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Q&A: Mae Ngai questions history of lawful immigration

Mae Ngai of Columbia University is a professor of history and the Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies. A former labor union organizer, Ngai’s scholarship is deeply informed by a lengthy study of U.S. legal and polical history. Ngai has written for the The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Nation. Her lecture was titled, “A Nation of Immigrants?”

Mae Ngai, scholar of immigration studies and professor of history at Columbia University, speaks to a full JRC 101 during convocation on Thursday morning. Ngai's lecture focused on the United States' identity as a "nation of immigrants," identifying the numerous ways in which this title is appropriate and inappropriate throughout the country's history. Photograph taken by Aaron Barker.

Could you please summarize what your research includes?
I’m principally an historian of American Immigration and citizenship. My first book was a history of restrictive immigration policy and specifically how restriction creates the undocumented or illegal alien. What I was interested in was trying to break down the idea that illegality is something about the immigrant: him or herself. When in fact it is a product of the law. The law says x number of people can come to this country a year. So if you’re a person x+1, you’re illegal. But they could change that number. Even though they raised the number considerably—the overall ceiling on restriction was raised considerably in 1990—the general rule since 1965 has been that no country can have more than 7% of the total. So the maximum form any country in 1965 was 20,000. In 1990, even though we raised the ceiling by 30% overall, the maximum number from any country only went up to 26,500. You have a very peculiar system under this rubric of equality meaning treating all countries the same, you have a peculiar situation where the quota from Mexico, is the same as the quota from New Zealand, is the same from India and is the same as Belgium. The countries that persistently exceed their quota are the really big countries. My research goes back to the 1920s when the first numerical system was put in place and those were based on a blatantly racist system where the quotas were distributed unevenly, based on which countries were deemed racially more desirable. That system excluded Asians altogether. All the northern Europeans got the highest ranking and the southern Europeans got the lowest. Interestingly the system set no numerical limit on countries of the Western Hemisphere countries, which strikes people as odd today because that’s the migration of greatest concern both because of the agricultural labor market and also because of American foreign policy interest in Latin America. When they changed the law in 1965 they decided this principle of equality which was good for some people but not so good for others, because it actually imposed quotas on Latin America where there had been none before, but it made the European situation more even and it allowed Asians to come in where they had been highly restricted or excluded all together before. That was the subject of the research of my first book and I was interested in how these kinds of irregular categories of migration created a lot of the legal grounds for legal immigration versus illegal or irregular immigration. In addition to people without documents I was interested in guest workers, people who came from colonial possessions of the United States like the Philippines and Asians who were deemed racially ineligible to be naturalized citizens. That was my first book, it was called “Impossible Subjects.”

What will be the main goal of your talk today?
When we say America is a nation of immigrants what do we mean? Where does that concept come from? That concept only entered the public discourse after WWII. We’ve kind of read it backwards and so I wanted to press on that idea and see where it’s valid and where it’s not valid. I think most people see it as being a concept of inclusion and many people say everybody in America is a descendant of immigrants except for Native Americans. That’s true, but I think that also obscures a lot. If we say everybody is an immigrant then we say that there’s no conceptual difference between somebody who’s a colonial settler, somebody who’s enslaved, somebody who’s a pioneer, someone who was an industrial worker or immigrant in the sense of somebody coming into an established country. For the first hundred years, or at least through the civil war, the people who came mostly form Europe really didn’t see themselves as immigrants and no body called them immigrants, they were called ‘settlers.’ It’s not true that they were settling a virgin land, but they weren’t immigrants coming into an established society. They actually saw themselves as founding that society or replicating their old society in a new place. Their descendants only called them immigrants when later migrants came in the late 19th century and were looked down upon so people began to call their own forebears who came earlier in the 19th century the ‘old’ immigrants to distinguish from the ‘new’ immigrants. I think what we have today in terms of mass migration is very similar to what we had in the late 19th century. For the last hundred years we could say we really are a nation of immigrants in that sense. The main difference between migration today and a hundred years ago was that a hundred years ago you didn’t have the problem of ‘illegal’ immigration. Illegal immigration only became a problem when restriction came about. Americans today say my ancestors came the ‘right’ way. They came legally. They didn’t cut in line. Well, there was no line. It’s a statement that’s ignorant of history if not a little disingenuous.

Does any of your work focus on political solutions for the current immigration problem?
I think the policy that’s called comprehensive immigraI think the policy that’s called comprehensive immigration reform today is very limited. It doesn’t address this question of how visas are allocated. It assumes that the total number will stay what it is and it assumes that all visas will be distributed in the same manner, with every country having the same manager. Other suggestions would, interestingly enough, draw from history. One is a statute of limitations on unlawful presence. If you enter the country without authorization you are forever living in fear of apprehension. Before the 1920s there were a few categories of unlawful presence; there were no numerical restrictions, there were exclusions for people with certain disabilities. If you were likely to become a public charge, or were to become feeble minded or had certain mental illness or had certain diseases or were a prostitute, these were grounds for exclusion. So if somebody was apprehended after they entered they could be deported. But there was a statute of limitations of about five years. After five years you were no longer deportable. That statute of limitations was based on the idea that after people have been here for a while they really become members of this society. They have jobs, families, property and you just can’t toss them out. Today we have no statute of limitations. I think we should reconsider that. If you think about our legal system we have statutes of limitations on everything except the worst crimes such as murder and kidnapping … and crossing the border without a visa. We let 20 years go by until we have an accretion of millions of people without documents and then we have to have this agonizing debate about whether to give them amnesty. We shouldn’t just toss people out arbitrarily after they’ve been here. We need to rethink our visa system.

We should have a distribution that takes into account size of population that is a proxy for need. We need to adjust the overall distribution based on proportionality within the total ceiling. Otherwise you will never get rid of this inequality. Third, we need to rethink Western Hemisphere migration. We used to have numerically unlimited migration, before the 60s even. If you had a more open border a lot of people would go back and forth. They wouldn’t necessarily settle permanently in the United States. In fact one of the reasons you have this large accretion of undocumented workers in the last 15 years is that people don’t go back because people are afraid that they can’t come back in.

The final idea is temporary labor migration. However, unlike the current debate, workers would be allowed to stay. As long as you have any restrictions at all, you will have violators. We live in a world where there is an uneven distribution of wealth. We live in a country with an aging native-born population. We need immigrants for the workforce. I think it’s unethical to expect people to come here and have no civil rights. I think we have to understand that it’s a normative part of our immigration system to have violators. It’s part of the package of having a policy which places a limit on people flow. I think you may want to minimize the amount of violators because you want to minimize the number of people who live in the shadows. You have to first rethink the whole system and understand what about the system generates so much legality.

Which part of society should be allowed to lead on immigration policy?
We need a market-driven system for the Western Hemisphere. Let the labor market control the ebbs and flows. All of the walls they built on the Mexican border, all of the high tech surveillance equipment they’ve put there. But do you know what slowed the migration? The financial crisis in 2008. There are now one million fewer undocumented in this country because people actually went home. It’s interesting because the conservatives, who really want to regulate the immigration, are often proponents of free market. If you let the market do the regulating of labor, I think that would actually go a long way. People aren’t going to leave their homes to come here if there aren’t any jobs and when there are jobs you want them to come here.

In the 19th and early 20th century, there was rapid growth and industrialization. The country needed labor. Many people criticized the immigrants of the time. In the end, many of the immigrants came and then went back home. In the early part of the 20th century, the return rate was about half. Many people don’t realize that the return rate was about half.

Would you be a proponent of an open border system between all countries?
I think for now, we should just focus on an open border system within the Western Hemisphere.

As students, what do you think we can do to help transition the immigration procedures in this country into a more just process?
I think that the discussion about illegal discrimination is a proxy for racism. People don’t complain about the Europeans who are here without papers. There are lots of them. About a third of immigrants are not of Mexican origin. There’s the idea that all Latinos are undocumented. A third of foreign-born Latinos are naturalized citizens. That’s a reason that it’s very difficult to have a rational discussion when people are trying to set a standard of knowledge about the debate.

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    ImigrationApr 15, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Got a lot of good questions here. It is great to learn something new about immigration laws.