The ben­e­fits of widen­ing our welcome to im­mi­grants

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY COLIN WOODARD Colin Woodard is a jour­nal­ist and the au­thor of five books, in­clud­ing “Amer­i­can Na­tions: A History of the Eleven Ri­val Re­gional Cul­tures of North Amer­ica” and the forth­com­ing “Amer­i­can Char­ac­ter: A History of the Epic Strug­gle Bet

The Kim fam­ily’s path to Amer­ica be­gan with 14-year-old Nam Soo’s har­row­ing es­cape from the North Korean army’s ad­vance on Seoul in Jan­uary 1951. She and her mother were lucky enough to find a place on the roof of the last freight train out of the city and some­how sur­vived the three-day trip to safety as oth­ers froze or fell to their deaths around them. Her mother, ex­hausted by the jour­ney, died a few months later, but Nam Soo sur­vived the war and— via Saigon, Aus­tralia and a brother who had served with the U.S. mil­i­tary — fi­nally ar­rived in the United States in 1980 with her hus­band and chil­dren, whose ad­ven­ture was only be­gin­ning.

Theirs is one of the pow­er­ful hu­man sto­ries cap­tured by vet­eran NPR re­porter Tom Gjel­ten in “A Na­tion of Na­tions,” a new book ex­plor­ing the stag­ger­ing im­pact of the 1965 Immigration Re­form Act on the United States in gen­eral and Fair­fax County, Va., in par­tic­u­lar. Froma vil­lage in ru­ral Bo­livia, a farm in war-torn El Salvador and a dis­si­dent house­hold in Libya, his cen­tral sub­jects strug­gled to get to the county in the 1970s and ’80s, then to build ca­reers, busi­nesses and bet­ter fu­tures for their chil­dren. In the process they helped trans­form Fair­fax from a racially seg­re­gated South­ern county rep­re­sented in Congress by white su­prem­a­cists to one of the wealth­i­est and most cul­tur­ally di­verse coun­ties in the United States, a na­tional sym­bol of con­tem­po­rary “edge gate­way” immigration, in which new­com­ers con­cen­trate on the out­skirts of a city rather than in its ur­ban core.

None of it would have hap­pened were it not for the pas­sage of the 1965 immigration act, the con­se­quences of which are Gjel­ten’s cen­tral con­cern. Signed into law 50 years ago at the height of Lyn­don John­son’s Great So­ci­ety, the act ended the 41-year-old prac­tice of as­sign­ing immigration quo­tas based on ethno-na­tional ori­gins; these were in place to pre­serve the al­legedly North­ern Euro­pean char­ac­ter of the United States. No longer would immigration pol­icy be based on what Sen. El­li­son Smith (D-S.C.) had called “the preser­va­tion of that splen­did stock,” the “pure, unadul­ter­ated An­glo-Saxon stock,” and on the re­stric­tion of sup­pos­edly in­fe­rior Eastern and South­ern Euro­peans, Africans, Arabs and es­pe­cially Asians, who were ex­plic­itly barred from cit­i­zen­ship.

“This sys­tem vi­o­lated the ba­sic prin­ci­ple of Amer­i­can democ­racy — the prin­ci­ple that val­ues and re­wards each man on the ba­sis of his merit as a man,” John­son said at a sign­ing cer­e­mony at the foot of the Statue of Lib­erty. “It has been un-Amer­i­can in the high­est sense, be­cause it has been un­true to the faith that brought thou­sands to these shores be­fore we were a coun­try.”

Sur­pris­ingly, few in Washington fully ap­pre­ci­ated the con­se­quences of their re­forms, which the John­son ad­min­is­tra­tion claimed would not re­sult in ma­jor changes in im­mi­grants’ num­bers or na­tional ori­gins. Their main con­gres­sional ad­ver­sary, Rep. Michael Feighan (D-Ohio), had ex­acted a con­ces­sion he thought would pre­serve the racial and eth­nic sta­tus quo: an in­sis­tence that the num­ber of slots re­served for high-skill ap­pli­cants be re­duced and those for fam­ily uni­fi­ca­tion pur­poses in­creased, with nearly a quar­ter set aside just for the sib­lings of U.S. cit­i­zens. Be­cause there were then so few Asian-, African- or Arab-born cit­i­zens, he rea­soned, the stip­ula--

tions would act as “a nat­u­rally op­er­at­ing” na­tional quota sys­tem.

“None of the peo­ple in­volved in the 1965 re­form of U.S. immigration pol­icy un­der­stood what they were do­ing,” Gjel­ten ob­serves. Feighan’s plan pro­duced ex­actly the op­po­site of what he in­tended: The Euro­pean share of im­mi­grants fell from 7 out of 8 in 1960 to 1 in 10 in 2010, a con­se­quence of im­proved eco­nomic prospects in Europe, bet­ter trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion links with other parts of the world and the act’s lib­eral fam­ily uni­fi­ca­tion pro­vi­sions. “A doc­tor or an engi­neer ar­riv­ing from In­dia, a tech­ni­cal worker from South Korea, a stu­dent from Africa who found em­ploy­ment in the United States, or a refugee from Afghanistan pro­vided an en­trée for an en­tire fam­ily net­work.”

Fifty years on, the re­sult has been a far more di­verse and de­cid­edly less An­glo-Saxon coun­try, and a re­assess­ment of what it means to be Amer­i­can. The late Sa­muel Hunt­ing­ton’s con­tention that we’re, cul­tur­ally speak­ing, an An­glo-Protes­tant na­tion may have once made sense in New Eng­land or to the gen­tle­man planters of the lower Ch­e­sa­peake, but it was never true of great swaths of the coun­try where the found­ing colonists were Dutch or Ger­man and the set­tle­ment ideal was cul­tural plu­ral­ism. That 350-year-old de­bate — are we an as­sim­ila­tive melt­ing pot or a mul­ti­cul­tural mo­saic? — gains poignancy in a world where new com­ers are more di­verse than ever and can of­ten main­tain close con­tact with their na­tions of ori­gin.

Fair­fax County makes for a fas­ci­nat­ing case study, not least be­cause of its Dixie her­itage. Its racial caste sys­tem was largely still in place in 1965, but by the time new im­mi­grants be­gan ar­riv­ing in large num­bers, African Amer­i­cans had won hard-fought bat­tles for school in­te­gra­tion and to have paved roads and side­walks in their neigh­bor­hoods. “We were fi­nally get­ting ac­cepted, and all of a sud­den here comes another group, and they qual­ify as a mi­nor­ity,” one African Amer­i­can for­mer PTA pres­i­dent told Gjel­ten, who ably de­scribes the in­evitable ten­sions that fol­lowed as so­cial ex­pen­di­tures were di­verted to help the new­com­ers.

Gjel­ten sets up the key na­tional pol­icy de­bates. These in­clude con­cerns about a break­down in as­sim­i­la­tion, fo­cused es­pe­cially on Mus­lim im­mi­grants af­ter the Tsar­naev broth­ers’ at­tack on the Bos­ton Marathon, and the emer­gence of An­war al-Awlaki, the Falls Church, Va., imam and even­tual al-Qaeda leader who was killed by a drone strike in Ye­men in 2011. Gjel­ten also dis­cusses the de­bate over con­tin­u­ing to pri­or­i­tize the immigration of broth­ers and sis­ters of U.S. res­i­dents over that of in­di­vid­u­als with skills and ex­per­tise in short sup­ply in the econ­omy. Some read­ers may be dis­ap­pointed he doesn’t ex­plore the lat­ter de­bate more deeply by, say, ex­am­in­ing the mer­its and de­mer­its of the skills-based Cana­dian immigration model.

That said, Gjel­ten has pro­duced a com­pelling and in­for­ma­tive ac­count of the im­pact of the 1965 re­forms, one that is in­dis­pens­able read­ing at a time when anti-im­mi­grant dem­a­goguery has again found its way onto the main stage of po­lit­i­cal dis­course.

ANATION OF NA­TIONS A Great Amer­i­can Immigration Story By Tom Gjel­ten Si­mon & Schuster. 405 pp. $28

PRINCE­TON UNIVER­SITY LI­BRARY

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