It turns out that, as with tariffs and the origins of the Civil War, there is no Final Word on immigration in the United States. It is a problem that has vexed the republic from its start, has agitated the politics of this epoch and many others, and is subject to periodic upheavals in public sentiment. We are indeed “a nation of immigrants,” as we tell ourselves. But immigration law is largely a reflection, at any given time, of what kind of immigrants we welcome to our shores and what kind we stop at the border. Dividing these two categories is a matter of ever-shifting judgment and debate.
Jia Lynn Yang is an editor at the New York Times and a daughter of immigrants. “Led to believe that the United States had always welcomed immigrants like my parents,” she writes, “I lacked the imagination for most of my life to envision a different America in which my family had been turned away.” Accordingly, “One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965” is an effort to understand precisely what kind of nation of immigrants we are and how we arrived at this moment in our history.
This is very much a journalist’s account. Ms. Yang is disturbed to learn that, until very recently, many prominent Americans held views on race, nationality and an ideal social order that we now consider distasteful. And while she is wise to confine her timeline to the past century, the history is imparted through the stories of political participants whose lives are now mostly forgotten—the bumptious Brooklyn champion of immigrants Rep. Emanuel Celler, the irascible red-baiting Nevada Democrat Sen. Pat McCarran—or altogether too well known: John, Robert and Edward Kennedy. This can get a little tedious at times.
Ms. Yang’s framework, however, is instructive. She begins with the Immigration Act of 1924, which was largely a reaction to the previous four decades of mass immigration and included the notorious Asian Exclusion Act, which would have barred her family’s entry in the 1970s. Of course, the 1924 legislation was very much a product of its times. Its severely restrictive national-origins provision reflected the widespread belief, especially prevalent in elite opinion, that the essence of American nationality was grounded in its British and Western European origins. The 1924 act was specifically intended to draw in a limited number of the right kinds of people while keeping out the wrong kinds of people (Eastern and Southern Europeans, Jews, Armenians, Asians, and Africans). And there was, then as now, an argument about what such phrases as “the melting pot” really meant: Is America a glorious refuge for all people or a civic ideal to which all must conform?