The best books on U.S. immigration policy and politics

Ruth Milkman Author Of Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat
By Ruth Milkman

Who am I?

I first got seriously interested in immigration when I moved to L.A. in the late 1980s. I had been a sociologist of labor for over a decade already, and now found myself in a city whose working class was overwhelmingly foreign-born. I was amazed to discover that L.A.’s immigrant workers, even the undocumented, were actively organizing into unions and community-based organizations. Trying to understand how this came about, my fascination with the larger dynamics of migration grew, and immigrant labor became central to my research agenda.


I wrote...

Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat

By Ruth Milkman,

Book cover of Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat

What is my book about?

This book challenges the immigrant threat narrative that blames foreign-born newcomers, especially the undocumented, for the deteriorating living standards of American workers. It argues that low-wage immigration is a consequence rather than a cause of growing economic precarity and skyrocketing inequality, drawing on case studies of key industries. Starting in the late 1970s, employer attacks on labor unions, along with neoliberal policies like deregulation, degraded many good-paying jobs held by non-college-educated U.S.-born workers. As a result, workers increasingly abandoned those now-undesirable jobs, which in turn led employers to hire immigrants to replace them. The justifiable anger of American workers at the reversal of fortune they have suffered in recent decades, I argue, should be directed at the employers and political elites whose actions degraded their former jobs, not at immigrants.

The books I picked & why

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Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America

By Mae M. Ngai,

Book cover of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America

Why this book?

This is easily the best account of the complex, racialized history of U.S. immigration law, politics, and policy. One of the arguments in it that impressed me most is that the category “illegal aliens”the “impossible subjects” of the title—barely existed in the pre-World War I years, when almost no European immigrants were turned away from the U.S. (Asians were another story). Ngai also brilliantly analyzes two landmark laws: the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which dramatically restricted immigration through nationality-based quotas limiting arrivals from Eastern and Southern Europe; and the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which eliminated the quotas and opened the door to a massive new immigrant influx. This is a densely written book, not an easy read, but no other text has taught me more about this topic.


Birds of Passage: Migrant Labor and Industrial Societies

By Michael J. Piore,

Book cover of Birds of Passage: Migrant Labor and Industrial Societies

Why this book?

This is an “oldie but goodie” – a classic text that has stood the test of time. Its critique of neoclassical economic theories shifted the paradigm for understanding labor migration. One key takeaway is Piore’s argument that the primary driver of immigration is employer demand for low-wage labor; the “push” factors previous commentators often emphasized are secondary. Another is that even when migrants themselves, and/or the countries that receive them, expect them to be temporary sojourners who will soon return to their countries of origin, most end up settling permanently, encouraging their children’s aspirations for upward mobility. Drawing on rich fieldwork from around the world as well as deep historical research, this book illuminates not only the past but also immigration developments since its publication over four decades ago.


Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration

By Douglas S. Massey, Jorge Durand, Nolan J. Malone

Book cover of Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration

Why this book?

Drawing on original data collected by the authors, this book’s focus is Mexican immigration to the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, when the U.S. ramped up border enforcement to deter undocumented immigration. It illuminates the dysfunctionality of the U.S. immigration system, highlighting the unintended consequences of legislation like the 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act (IRCA), which utterly failed to achieve its objectives. Rather than coming under “control,” the flow of undocumented immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border instead skyrocketed after IRCA. The reason, the authors show, is that intensified border enforcement raised the costs and risks of crossing the border without authorization, leading many Mexican workers who once had gone back and forth across the border to permanently settle in the U.S., soon joined by family members.  


Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration

By Ana Raquel Minian,

Book cover of Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration

Why this book?

This book vividly exposes the human side of Mexican undocumented migration through original oral history interviews, along with songs and letters. It focuses on the 1970s, when the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act was in force and the bracero program had ended. Minian explains how and why the Mexican government tacitly encouraged undocumented migration to the U.S. in this period, and its role in defending the rights of its citizens north of the border.  Most migration from Mexico to the U.S. was circular in this period: around 86% of all entries (made up largely of young men) were offset by departures. The book also explores the emerging political controversy over undocumented immigrants leading up to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, along with the origins of the modern immigrant rights movement.


Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault on Immigration

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Michael D. Shear,

Book cover of Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault on Immigration

Why this book?

Although Trump is out of the White House (for now) and the pandemic has taken center stage politically, this book by two New York Times reporters remains invaluable. It analyzes the origins of the xenophobic immigrant-bashing that paved the way for Trump’s election in 2016, as well as the ways in which his administration systematically sought to restrict both unauthorized and legal immigration. Hirschfeld Davis and Shear document in chilling detail the machinations of Stephen Miller, a senior Trump advisor and the administration’s point person on immigration policy. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the power of populist anti-immigrant politics in the U.S. as they unfolded in the 2010s, a phenomenon that may well re-emerge in the years to come.


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