Immigrant song: how America gets assimilation (mostly) right.

Author:Shih, June
Position:A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story - Book review

A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story

by Tom Gjelten

Simon & Schuster, 416 pp.

With Republican presidential candidates daily falling over themselves to slam the door hardest on immigrants to our shores, especially those of specific nationalities and religions, it's interesting to note that 2015 also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the boldest step America ever took in the opposite direction.

Ironically, that step, taken on October 3, 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law a bill eliminating forty years of racist quotas in U.S. immigration policy, was not even taken knowingly. As they patted themselves on the back for securing another civil rights victory, neither LB J nor any of the elected officials surrounding him at the signing ceremony at the Statue of Liberty that day--from Bobby and Teddy Kennedy to the lone person of color, Senator Daniel Inouye--imagined the tidal wave of demographic change the law would unleash in the United States.

In fact, "[n]one of the people involved in the 1965 reform of U.S. immigration policy understood what they were doing," reports Tom Gjelten in A Nation of Nations, a very readable, at times sprawling, account of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act and how it gave rise to the multihued America we live in today. Everyone, Gjelten notes, miscalculated the effects of the law. Supporters insisted that abolishing the forty-year-old racial quotas favoring whites and replacing them with a color-blind policy that favored skilled workers and family members of residents would not change the racial profile of new immigrants. As LBJ told the crowd at Liberty Island, "The bill that we sign today is not a revolutionary bill." Ted Kennedy, who managed the bill's passage in the Senate, reassured colleagues, "The ethnic mix of this country will not be upset." The Department of Justice asserted, "The United States would not be inundated by Africans and Asians. Indeed over 90 percent of all immigrants to the United States would be Caucasian, predominately European."

As we now know, the opposite happened. Today, just one out of ten immigrants is from Europe. In 1960, Gjelten notes, 11,000 Koreans were living in the United States. By 2000, there were 864,000. Indians in America jumped from barely 17,000 to more than a million.

The section of the 1965 law most responsible for the large influx of nonwhite immigrants had originally been designed by opponents to preserve the racial status quo. To counteract the elimination of racial quotas, they insisted that three-quarters of all immigrant visas be reserved for family reunification, allowing relatives of those already living in America to go to the head of the green card line. This would keep the immigrant population white, conservatives such as the American Legion reasoned, since "Asiatics, having far fewer immediate family members now in the United States than Southern Europeans, will automatically arrive in far fewer numbers."

Opponents failed to...

To continue reading