Center for Asian American Studies
Center for Asian American Studies

Dr. Mae Ngai Visits UT Austin

Fri, December 6, 2013
Dr. Mae Ngai Visits UT Austin
Drs. Mae Ngai and Madeline Hsu

By Dr. Madeline Hsu

On Oct. 14, 2013, the leading legal and immigration historian, Mae Ngai, lectured on "A Nation of Immigrants? History, Politics and Immigration Reform" at Avaya Auditorium.  Dr. Ngai, who is Professor of History and Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies at Columbia University, used the occasion to disembowel key myths and misunderstandings impeding passage of immigration reform today.  Despite perceptions that America is being overrun by unprecedented numbers of illegal immigrants who not only enter without permission, but remain stubbornly nonassimilating, Dr. Ngai provided quantitative information to show that current entry levels correspond to those at the turn of the twentieth century.  Then as now, nativist fears surged leading to passage of some of the most restrictive immigration laws in US history.  By mid-century, however, these immigrant populations and their descendants—Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles, and other southern and eastern Europeans—and become inextricable elements of the diverse fabric of American life. 

Since the legal liberalizations of 1965, immigrant numbers have once again peaked but with the majority originating in Asia and central and South America.  Although the law’s employment preferences have ensured that disproportionate numbers of Asian immigrants arrive highly educated and economically privileged, the 1965 Immigration Act created our enormous, present-day problem of 11 million undocumented immigrants, primarily from Central and South America, by imposing numeric caps for the first time on hemispheric migration.  The millions accustomed to crossing relatively unencumbered in and out of neighboring countries suddenly found themselves criminalized and punished for what had been a natural flow between linked locations in pursuit of work and connections to family and friends.  Dr. Ngai explored the restrictions of law but also diminishing economic opportunity that has kept this group locked out from gaining mainstream access to upward socioeconomic mobility and acceptance in the United States.  In contrast to conditions through the mid-twentieth century, declining investments in public education and the shift away from manufacturing toward finance and services as mainstays of the American economy have sharply restricted the upward mobility, and thus assimilation, of working-class immigrants and their descendants.    

Check out Dr. Ngai’s internationally renowned publications: the multiple award-winning Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, 2004), The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Oxford, 2010), and the co-edited Major Problems in American Immigration History (Wadsworth 2011).

This event was co-sponsored by the Humanities Institute through the Paul and Mary Ho Endowment, the Institute for Historical Studies in the Department of History, the Department of American Studies, and the Clark Center for Australia and New Zealand Studies.

View photos from the event here.

Madeline Hsu is the director of the Center for Asian American studies and associate professor in the Department of History.

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