Thursday, September 3, 2015

From the Bookshelves: A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story by Tom Gjelten


In A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story, veteran NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten assesses the impact and importance of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act by interweaving the stories of a handful of immigrant families with the history and analysis of the immigration changes in America as a whole.

As the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Act approaches this October, immigration continues to be a hot-button issue in American politics.  When the law was passed, fewer than 5 percent of Americans were foreign-born. Today, immigrants make up nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population, and the composition of the foreign-born population has changed dramatically. The 1965 Act abolished the national-origin quotas that favored immigrants from Europe and discriminated against all others. The United States, for the first time, became a country that officially welcomed people of all nationalities.

In the decades since, America’s founding myth of openness has been tested. Prior to 1965, three out of four immigrants came from Europe, and the country’s cultural character reflected its Anglo-Saxon roots. As Gjelten writes, “The evident premise of U.S. immigration law was that the explanation for America’s success in the world actually lay in its European heritage, not in its history as a country shaped by enterprising newcomers.” Fifty years after passage of the 1965 Act, nine out of ten immigrants are coming from other parts of the world, including Vietnam, Korea, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico, Central America, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and many other places previously unrepresented. As one of the last—and most important—acts of the civil-rights era, the 1965 Act forced a new consideration of the U.S. national identity. By committing to a multicultural heritage, America took a thrilling gamble, betting heavily on its own resilience. As Gjelten writes in the prologue:

“The immigrant influx set up a belated test of America’s character and identity. Was its strength and resilience a result of its formation as ‘not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations,’ as Walt Whitman said? Or were its achievements actually due to its Anglo-Saxon heritage? That aspect of American society was fast diminishing in relative importance, replaced by unprecedented racial and ethnic diversity. The country had not yet dared to see whether it could live up to its motto, E pluribus unum, ‘Out of many, one’ (an expression that referred originally to the thirteen colonies coming together as one state). As last, America could find out whether it was truly an exceptional nation and what it really meant to be American.” 

 This story unfolded with particular drama in some communities, notably one suburban county in northern Virginia that experienced a lifetime of change in a few short years, as immigrants arrived from all over the world. As late as 1970, foreign-born residents in Fairfax County made up less than one percent of the population. By 2010, one out of four county residents was an immigrant, and more than 100 languages were represented in the county school system.

 Gjelten’s narrative portrays in rich detail five immigrant families fromAsian, Arab, and Latin American countriesas they settle into Fairfax County and struggle to find and embrace the values that bind them to their new homeland and make them fully American. 

 Mark Keam and Alex Seong Keam both came from impoverished backgrounds in South Korea but both took advantage of educational opportunities in the United States and became successful lawyers. Along the way, they observed the tensions that sometimes surface in the relations between immigrants and other minority groups. Mark was a political activist and, with his wife’s support, became the first Asian immigrant elected to the Virginia state legislature. His career demonstrated the political clout of the new immigrant population.

 Esam Omeish and his siblings arrived in the United States with their parents from Libya. Though the family was not especially religious in Libya, they became devout Muslims in America. Esam, who became a prominent lay leader of the Muslim community in northern Virginia, credited a U.S. climate of openness and freedom and was determined to show that a commitment to Islam is not incompatible with a fervent U.S. patriotism.

 The Alarcón family immigrated from Bolivia, spurred by the family matriarch who taught her daughters and their husbands to plan their futures carefully and plot a way to reach their destination. “When you start out poor, you are better than others at rising up,” she counseled. And rise up they did, learning new skills and trades with the help of instructional books they borrowed from their local library. 

 The families profiled in A Nation of Nations are illustrative of the immigration experience across America and their stories incorporate many immigrant themes, including friction between minorities, the drive to compete and create, and the burdens associated with racial and cultural stereotyping.

Among the characters in this epic story are the politicians and pundits who debated for years whom the country should welcome, the African American activists who overcame segregation only to face competition from new immigrant neighbors, and the government officials who had to design services for a population of various languages, faiths, and colors.

 Gjelten shares many notable insights on the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, including:


 The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act has received far less attention than the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act, which were approved around the same time, but its passage has proved to be one of the most nation-changing events in American history.  By eliminating national origin quotas, which heavily favored European immigration, the 1965 Act opened the door to visa applicants from around the world on a non-discriminatory basis.  In the fifty years after its enactment, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population tripled and shifted dramatically in composition. 

  • Critics of the 1965 immigration reform objected that it would shift the immigration flow, in the words of one senator, “from those European countries that contributed most to the formation of this nation to the countries of Asia and Africa.” Supporters insisted no such shift would ensue from the reform, but in this case the critics’ predictions were closer to the mark. In 1960, three out of four immigrants were from Europe. By 2010, nine of ten immigrants were from non-European countries.  


  • As a U.S. senator, Lyndon B. Johnson supported the McCarran-Walter Act, which severely restricted immigration from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East through the use of national origin quotas. By contrast, Sen. John F. Kennedy was an outspoken opponent of the quota system. But it was Johnson, not Kennedy, who as president made the elimination of national origin quotas a top legislative priority, and Johnson’s strong support was key to passage of the 1965 Act.


  • Some conservatives today decry the 1965 Act, arguing in hindsight that it produced more immigration than the country could handle. But much of that influx stemmed from an amendment of the original reform proposal, introduced at the time in deference to conservative wishes. Advocates of the national origin quota system agreed to support the 1965 reform only after “family unification” rather than “employability” was made the top immigration goal. The conservatives’ expectation was that by giving preference to those immigrants with U.S. relatives, the existing ethnic profile of the U.S. population would be preserved. Instead, the “family unification” preference gave rise to the phenomenon of chain migration, which in subsequent years became responsible for the vast majority of new non-European immigrants.


  • The 1965 Act was passed as part of the Great Society program and had the support of liberal Democrats in the U.S. Congress. But the Democratic Party at the time also included a large number of conservative southerners, while the Republican Party included many northern moderates and liberals. Proportionally, more Republicans than Democrats supported the 1965 legislation.


  • The shift from European to non-European immigration in the fifty years after the 1965 Act was reinforced by changes in the international economic and political order. Europe was experiencing economic growth and prosperity, so Europeans were less motivated to migrate. Violent conflict and political unrest in the developing countries, meanwhile, were pushing more people to leave home and seek better lives elsewhere. At the same time, improvements in global communication and transportation networks were making migration an increasingly practical option. Secretary of State Dean Rusk in 1965 chose not to highlight those global trends when he downplayed the prospect of “a world situation where everybody is just straining to move to the United States.”


  • The prevalence of chain migration in the post-1965 years resulted in new settlement patterns. Previously, immigrants were more likely to move en masse from their native countries and settle in enclaves with others of their national background, often in urban areas. More recent immigrants, however, tended to arrive family by family and choose their destinations more deliberately. Many settled in suburbanneighborhoods, attracted by good schools, employment opportunities, and greater security. The result was a more diverse pattern of settlement.


  • Post-1965 immigration numbers from Asia and Africa tell a dramatic story. In 1960, barely 11,000 Koreans lived in the U.S. By 2000, the number was 864,000.  The number of native Pakistanis in the United States jumped during the same period from 1,700 to 223,000. Immigration from India during those forty years increased from about 17,000 to more than one million. In the forty years prior to 1965, fewer than 40,000 people from all of Africa were admitted to the United States as immigrants. Over the next forty years, the number of African immigrants legally resident in the United States rose to 1.4 million.


  • The elimination of national origin quotas in U.S. immigration policy was seen at the time as a civil rights achievement and came in the context of the civil rights movement. The influx of immigrants that followed coincided with the expansion of opportunities for black Americans in education, housing, and employment. In places like Fairfax County, Virginia, where racial segregation had been the rule, this created some conflict. No sooner had black residents won a measure of justice than they found themselves competing for scarce resources with newly arriving immigrants.


  • The influx of non-European immigrants after 1965 had political as well as social implications, though in diverse ways. A quarter of economically active Korean immigrants are self-employed, giving them a special stake in debates about taxation and business regulation. Immigrants from Muslim countries are more likely to have conservative views when it comes to such social issues as same-sex marriage and abortion. Indians, the most highly-educated immigrant group, are over-represented in professional and technical circles, with higher than average incomes, and GOP leaders see the group as a natural constituency.


Books, Current Affairs | Permalink


Post a comment