U.S. presidents as far back as Harry Truman denounced entry policies based on nationality, calling them discriminatory and un-American.
President Trump’s reported suggestion that the United States needs fewer immigrants from “shithole countries” and more from those like Norway revives an argument made vigorously a century ago—though in less profane terms—only to be discredited in the decades that followed.
Social engineering through immigration policy isn’t simple—and such efforts often produce dramatic, unintended consequences.
Trump adviser Stephen Miller says the new White House plan to amend U.S. immigration law, introduced by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, is “the largest proposed reform to our immigration policy in half a century.”
The White House wants to revisit the 1965 Immigration Act, which opened America’s doors wide to immigrants of color and produced the most sweeping demographic transformation of the country in its history.
Critics of the proposal see it as a thinly veiled effort to constrict the flow of nonwhite groups to the United States. The alt-right leader Richard Spencer, welcoming such a development, told HuffPost the bill “sounds awesome.”
The bill’s proposed changes are certainly significant, but their consequences may not be easily predicted. The key lesson of the 1965 reforms is that social engineering through the adjustment of immigration policy is no simple matter—and almost any such effort will produce dramatic, unintended consequences.
Esam and Badria Omeish and their daughters Abrar and Anwar have all been leaders in their communities in Northern Virginia. Esam, who came to America at the age of fifteen, was active in the Muslim Students Association at both the local and national levels.
His wife Badria, a molecular biologist, is a college teacher. Abrar and Anwar excelled in their public high schools and went on to study at Yale and Harvard, respectively.
The 1965 Immigration Act brought new opportunities for people from predominantly Muslim countries to move to the United States, and Muslims are now one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the country. Their integration in American society has exemplified the country’s diversity, though many have also faced discrimination and prejudice.
Like most Americans, author Tom Gjelten comes from an immigrant family. His grandfather, Nicolai Ordahl, was born and raised on a farm in Norway but felt compelled to move to America when the farm passed to an older brother and he was left without employment opportunities.
As a Norwegian immigrant in the early twentieth century, Nicolai had much in common with the non-European immigrants who benefitted from the 1965 immigration reforms, but the later wave of immigrants faced obstacles that Nicolai’s generation did not encounter. A Nation of Nations tells the story of how America as a nation was transformed by the 1965 Immigration Act.
Gjelten is a veteran journalist for NPR News with experience covering both national and international issues.
In the half century after the 1965 Immigration Act, the United States underwent a profound demographic shift, with newcomers arriving from around the world in numbers not seen since the early years of the twentieth century.
When the law was passed, fewer than five percent of Americans were foreign born. Fifty years later, immigrants made up nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population, and the composition of the foreign born population had 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.
Over the next decades, America’s founding myth of openness was put to the test. Prior to the 1965, three out of four immigrants came from Europe, and the country’s cultural character reflected its Anglo Saxon roots. Since then, nine of ten have come from other parts of the world. One of the last—and most important– acts of the civil-rights era, the 1965 immigration 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.
“The 21st century will be defined by seismic global immigration, remapping human interaction to the core, and the United States will remain the model for other nations to emulate. Tom Gjelten understands why, not only because he is a byproduct of immigration, but because he has been in the trenches—the inner cities, the rural landscapes, the contested borders‑‑where America is reborn on a daily basis. In this probing exploration, he explains, lucidly and with compassion, the extent to which the motto e pluribus unum is the engine of progress.”— Ilan Stavans, editor of Becoming Americans: Immigrants Tell Their Stories from Jamestown to Today
“Tom Gjelten sings of a new America that bravely invites newcomers. A Nation of Nations would have pleased Whitman himself for its generosity, spirit and hope. This book is both smart and moving.”— Min Jin Lee, author of Free Food for Millionaires
The 1965 Immigration Act, which eliminated the use of national origin quotas in the selection of immigrants, was enacted in the midst of the civil rights movement and the Great Society legislative initiatives under President Lyndon Johnson.
In order to win the support of conservatives like Democratic congressman Michael Feighan of Ohio, the Johnson Administration had to compromise.
Feighan insisted on “family unification” as the top priority in immigration policy under the 1965 Act, rather than “employability.” His thought was that favoring those immigrants who already had relatives in the United States would serve to maintain the existing ethnic profile of the country. Instead, that change led to the phenomenon of chain migration, which came to be the driving force in immigration in future years.
Mark Keam, whose Korean name was Sun Yeop Kim, immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of fourteen.
As a young man, he was fascinated by politics and by the promise of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, with its vision of an alliance between minorities and immigrants of color. In Northern Virginia, he became a political activist, organizing Fairfax County in support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
In 2009, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, having defeated fellow immigrant Esam Omeish in the Democratic primary.
Immigration is often said to be an entrepreneurial act, a gamble taken with the expectation of a future reward for the up-front risk. Victor Alarcón, Sr., followed his sisters-in-law to the United States even though he had no contacts there and spoke no English.
Over the next twenty years he learned English, taught himself new skills, worked in a variety of jobs, and even went into business for himself. He passed his energy and entrepreneurial drive on to his sons, who grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, surrounded by other immigrants. Álvaro’s closest friends in high school were two other young immigrants, one from Pakistan and one from Korea.
The 9-11 terror attacks and the rise of Islamist extremism as a U.S. security threat meant that Muslim immigrants in the United States were often viewed with suspicion. The Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, where many Muslim immigrants worshipped, came under special scrutiny.
Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was born in the United States to immigrants from Yemen, served as an imam at Dar Al Hijrah and later advocated violent attacks on Americans. He came to the attention of FBI investigators after it became clear that he had met some 9-11 hijackers. Awlaki had impressed Esam Omeish, one of the lay leaders at the mosque, as a moderate.
His case illustrated how difficult it sometimes was to determine who and why some Muslims became radicalized.