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

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Ruth Milkman Why did I love 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.

By Mae M. Ngai,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Impossible Subjects as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book traces the origins of the "illegal alien" in American law and society, explaining why and how illegal migration became the central problem in U.S. immigration policy--a process that profoundly shaped ideas and practices about citizenship, race, and state authority in the twentieth century. Mae Ngai offers a close reading of the legal regime of restriction that commenced in the 1920s--its statutory architecture, judicial genealogies, administrative enforcement, differential treatment of European and non-European migrants, and long-term effects. She shows that immigration restriction, particularly national-origin and numerical quotas, remapped America both by creating new categories of racial difference and by…


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

Ruth Milkman Why did I love 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.

By Michael J. Piore,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Birds of Passage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Birds of Passage presents an unorthodox analysis of migration ion to urban industrial societies from underdeveloped rual areas. It argues that such migrations are a continuing feature of industrial societies and that they are generated by forces inherent in the nature of industrial economies. It explains why conventional economic theory finds such migrations so difficult to comprehend, and challenges a set of older assumptions that supported the view that these migrations were beneficial to both sending and receiving societies. Professor Piore seriously questions whether migration actually relieves population pressure and rural unemployment, and whether it develops skills necessary for the…


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

Ruth Milkman Why did I love 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.  

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Beyond Smoke and Mirrors as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Migration between Mexico and the United States is part of a historical process of increasing North American integration. This process acquired new momentum with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, which lowered barriers to the movement of goods, capital, services, and information. But rather than include labor in this new regime, the United States continues to resist the integration of the labor markets of the two countries. Instead of easing restrictions on Mexican labor, the United States has militarized its border and adopted restrictive new policies of immigrant disenfranchisement. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors examines the…


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

Ruth Milkman Why did I love 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.

By Ana Raquel Minian,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Undocumented Lives as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Frederick Jackson Turner Award Finalist
Winner of the David Montgomery Award
Winner of the Theodore Saloutos Book Award
Winner of the Betty and Alfred McClung Lee Book Award
Winner of the Frances Richardson Keller-Sierra Prize
Winner of the Americo Paredes Book Award

"A deeply humane book."
-Mae Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects

"Necessary and timely...A valuable text to consider alongside the current fight for DACA, the border concentration camps, and the unending rhetoric dehumanizing Mexican migrants."
-PopMatters

"A deep dive into the history of Mexican migration to and from the United States."
-PRI's The World

In the 1970s, the Mexican…


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

Ruth Milkman Why did I love 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.

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Michael D. Shear,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Border Wars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two New York Times Washington correspondents provide a detailed, "fact-based account of what precipitated some of this administration's more brazen assaults on immigration" (The Washington Post) filled with never-before-told stories of this key issue of Donald Trump's presidency.

No issue matters more to Donald Trump and his administration than restricting immigration.

Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear have covered the Trump administration from its earliest days. In Border Wars, they take us inside the White House to document how Stephen Miller and other anti-immigration officials blocked asylum-seekers and refugees, separated families, threatened deportation, and sought to erode the longstanding…


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The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


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