By Sue Weishar, Ph.D.
Mae Ngai posits in her landmark study of U.S. immigration from 1924 to 1965, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004), that numerical exclusion of persons wanting to emigrate to the United States, beginning in a comprehensive way with the Immigration Act of 1924 created a new class of persons within the country—illegal aliens, whose inclusion in the nation was “at once a social reality and a legal impossibility.” Barred from entry and therefore citizenship and with limited rights, the illegal alien, Ngai concludes, is thus an “impossible subject,” a person “who cannot be and a problem that cannot be solved.”1
The paradoxes in our immigration laws that Ngai so skillfully deconstructs continue to have painful consequences for today’s undocumented immigrants and their families. Time and again our nation’s immigration laws have failed to address the need for immigrant labor and contradict longcherished American values, resulting in impossible choices by undocumented immigrants. Since the passage of harsh anti-immigrant laws in 1996 and more recent state antiimmigrant laws, the impossible choices have been compounded.
The devolution of immigration enforcement to state and local police, for example, through 287(g) agreements pursuant to the 1996 Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and ICE’s Secure Communities Program, has led to a massive undermining of trust between immigrant communities and police officers whose job it is to protect all community residents. State antiimmigrant laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 and Alabama’s HB 56 continue the trend of turning local law enforcement into immigration agents. In June, the Supreme Court let standthe most controversial aspect of Arizona’s law, requiring police officers to investigate the immigration status of anyone they stop who they “suspect” may be undocumented.2 As a direct consequence of these laws and policies, an immigrant woman suffering life-threatening abuse from her spouse or partner often faces an impossible choice. Should she call the police for protection and risk her or her partner being detained and deported, or should she continue to suffer abuse and risk injury or death?
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