“The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law” examined the Immigration Act of 1924 and the introduction of an immigration quota system based on census data, promoted by nativists. The quota was seemingly based on nation state, but Ngai explores the origin and flaws of the term. Immigration was not even recorded before 1820, and not classified by origin until 1899, and even then, origin was not by nation-state, but by race.
Nativists preferred northern and western Europeans over the “undesirable races” (69) of eastern and southern Europe, but all were white, and there were no attempts to limit their ability to gain naturalization or citizenship. For non-European immigrants, however, their ethnic origins and race were one, as the racialization of their ethnic origins made nativists perceive them as “unalterably foreign” (70). Although race was not explicitly mentioned in the statute, it defined “native born” not as born in the United States, but as a person descended from the white population of the United States in 1790, and the exceptions were clearly racialized. It excluded immigrants from the Western Hemisphere or their descendants, aliens ineligible to citizenship or their descendants, the descendants of slave immigrants, and the descendants of the American aborigines, essentially eliminating nonwhite, non-Europeans from the American nationality. I thought it was particularly interesting that Congress made quotas for non-natives of certain nation states, typically Asian states, to immigrate to the United States, since the citizens of those states were deemed ineligible for American citizenship, so there would be quotas for non-Chinese people from China, and so on.
Ngai also examined the changing status and perception of Mexican immigrants. It was difficult to racially classify Mexicans, and in court, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which granted citizenship to Mexicans in the annexed southwest American citizenship as a conquered population, granted the right to naturalization. However, in the southwest in the 1920s, a Mexican “race problem” in commercial agriculture emerged, and restrictions began to be made to limit Mexican immigration, but as illegal immigration continued, the construction of Mexicans as an illegal and illegitimate foreign presence in the United States began. Mexican immigrants were stripped of their claim of belonging in the United States originally, as natives, and the 1930 census named Mexican as a separate race. It was interesting to read about how the classification and perception of Mexican immigrants changed, and I think we can still see many elements of it today, a century later. I was particularly struck by the fact that over 400,000 Mexicans, half of whom were children with American citizenship, were deported and repatriated to Mexico, which I find to be horrible and tragic.