The country is made up almost entirely of immigrants, yet the United States goes through decades-long bouts of antipathy toward them. Journalist Jia Lynn Yang’s family emigrated to the United States from Taiwan in 1976; it wasn’t until much later that she learned her family had benefited from a US policy only a decade old when her parents applied for visas. Interested in the change in policy, she set out to research US immigration law during the period when it was restricted the most. Her new book, One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965, tells the fascinating story of how these immigration restrictions came to be and why they were relaxed after four decades.
Immigration and its conjoined twin, citizenship, have been formalized only relatively recently. Before the 1920s, people from other countries could enter the United States without a passport or visa. The British Empire had little concept of citizenship per se at all—any British subject could move to the UK until after the Second World War. The current discussion about Britain giving Hong Kong British National (Overseas) passport holders actual citizenship is a result of this imperial hangover.
Any discussion of immigration must start with the recognition that, around the turn of the century, the United States—due to war and economic difficulties overseas, and facilitated by trans-oceanic travel that was, for the first time, generally affordable—experienced rather a lot of it. Indeed, writes Yang,
More immigrants entered the country in the first decade of the twentieth century than between 1931 and 1971.
Earlier immigrants, furthermore, had settled in rural areas, whereas those coming to the US around 1900 preferred large cities, resulting in a visible change in demographics and urban geography. Yang links the moves to restrict immigration to the KKK:
The Ku Klux Klan, its iconography dormant for more than a quarter century, was again on the rise, this time with a virulent anti-immigrant core and millions of members gathering not in the shadows but in broad daylight, marching down city streets. The Saturday Evening Post, one of the most widely circulated publications in the country, ran regular articles warning middle-class American readers that the immigrants were racially inferior, impossible to assimilate, and a threat to stability and democracy itself.
The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act set immigration quotas by country and harkened back to the demographics of 1890s:
In order to keep America white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, the laws sharply curtailed immigration from southern and eastern Europe and outright banned people from nearly all of Asia.
The principle that had been established in the Chinese Exclusion Act was now generalized. The act took Japan by surprise, which had until then enjoyed decent relations with the US. Warren Harding won the presidential election in 1920 promising “America First”. Calvin Coolidge, president in 1924, had promised Congress that “America must be kept American”. Yang goes on to note that
the Asian quotas were race-based, not country-based, meaning that a person of Chinese ancestry living anywhere in the world—including Britain or Ireland, countries that enjoyed large quotas—would be counted against China’s slots.
The restrictive 1924 immigration law could be bent for special circumstances, so immigration from Asia was not completely at a standstill between 1924 and 1965; exceptions included the War Brides Act of 1945 for Chinese women married to American men and a small number of Indians and Filipinos in 1946. Japanese and Korean immigrants were kept out.
President after president starting with Franklin Roosevelt thought about reforming immigration laws because basing quotas on 1890 demographics became more and more outdated, but it wasn’t until Lyndon Johnson became president after Kennedy’s assassination that there was finally hope for true reform.
Yang traces Johnson’s early political life in the mid-1930s, just as Hitler was rising in Germany. Johnson befriended Jewish politicians in Washington when he started out in Congress, many of whom advocated for immigration reform. One, Emmanuel “Mannie” Celler, a representative from New York, was in Congress from the time the 1924 bill was passed until after the sweeping reforms in 1965 during Johnson’s first full term.
The 1965 law lifted quotas and country of origin preference, which has revolutionized the demographics of the US. The new law gave precedence to family members of US citizens, or chain immigration. It also opened immigration for certain professions that were needed in the US, like medical doctors. As a result, from 1965 to 1974, 75,000 doctors from Korea, India, Iran, and the Philippines immigrated to the US. These demographics are not what politicians in 1924 hoped for; America was never established to be a melting pot. And while immigration was perhaps the last successful piece of legislation from LBJ, it has come with some unfortunate side effects. For the first time ever, restrictions on immigration from Mexico went into effect with consequences that have increasingly roiled American society, economics and politics.
Yang ends her book with a thoughtful and timely message about the US, with fear-mongering directed at minorities and immigrants at an all-time high: