For more than four decades beginning in 1924 the United States, for generations the great nation of immigrants and the dream destination for the oppressed, turned from its fabled past, virtually shutting off immigration in a period when vast changes swept through Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The tired and poor were largely kept from our shores by a law that basically locked the American doors to many yearning to breathe free.
All that changed with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which helped shape the America we now inhabit by transforming the demographics of the country even as the country confronted its exclusionary past during the civil rights era. One of the beneficiaries was the family of Jia Lynn Yang, whose mother from Taiwan and father from Shanghai found a home in the United States and whose devotion and diligence have produced a masterly study of political struggle.
Yang’s “One Mighty and Irresistible Tide” is at base a political story, and it is a uniquely American story, one to celebrate in this period when immigration once again is on the American agenda and when immigrants are targeted as criminals and coronavirus carriers.
This is a story of how Irish Catholic leaders like John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy worked with Jewish political figures like Emanuel Celler and Herbert Lehman and others in what Yang called a “coalition of the powerful and the powerless.” Together they produced a landmark immigration bill that was signed by a Protestant president, Lyndon Johnson, himself marked deeply by his early years teaching Mexican-American schoolchildren in Texas.
The 1924 law was an expression of xenophobia and paranoia, fueled in large measure by fear-mongering over the 10 million immigrants who flooded into the country in the years before the outbreak of World War I and who comprised the second wave of immigration that entered our borders after the war. “They looked different from the Germans, Scandinavians, British, and Irish who had come before,’’ Yang writes. They changed the nature of the melting plot.
The phrase “melting pot” came from a 1908 play by Israel Zangwill that propagated the idea that America was “where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!” Not everyone was willing to put an exclamation point on that phrase, or on that notion. With fears of communism rising, sentiments of anti-Semitism spreading, unemployment climbing, and a reborn Ku Klux Klan growing, the melting pot looked a lot less shiny.
Before that skepticism took new form in the 1924 legislation, the new attitude took its form in commentary like this, in the Saturday Evening Post: “If the farmer doesn’t keep out the weeds by his own toil, his crops will be choked and stunted. If America doesn’t keep out the queer, alien, mongrelized people of Southeastern Europe, her crop of citizens will eventually be dwarfed and mongrelized in turn.”
The 1924 law barred immigrants from Asia and restricted immigration to 2 percent of the population of foreign groups in the 1890 census, a date chosen specifically because it preceded the large wave of immigrants in the last decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th. The law had a catastrophic effect: The total allocation for the Eastern European nations that the Nazis would occupy was infinitesimal. The United States took in 250,000 Jewish refugees during the years of Hitler’s reign — a period in which 6 million died.
The middle section of Yang’s readable and at times enthralling book is taken up with the various efforts — halting, severely restricted — to return America to its place as haven and harbor for the so-called wretched refuse that once washed up onto our national soil but that so enriched our national soul. In the course of this she brings to life the anti-immigration crusader Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada and casts fresh light on JFK, who in his 1952 Senate race spoke up against the restrictive McCarran-Walter Act he had supported earlier and in so doing spoke up for freer immigration.
But the real energy of this volume comes from the drive for the comprehensive overhaul that was in large measure a redemption of the original American immigration dream. By 1960 the Democratic platform called the quota system that had governed US immigration “a policy of deliberate discrimination” and said it was “inconsistent with our beliefs in the rights of man.”
The Kennedy administration prepared a daring immigration bill. Then the president was shot. Johnson took up the cause and the case, and, with an important effort by the young Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, signed legislation that opened the American gates but also had unforeseen consequences that changed the demographics of the country. More immigrants from Latin America and Asia entered the country. By 1989, the Third World accounted for the top 10 countries contributing the new Americans. Today the foreign-born population of the nation is the highest it has been since 1910.
Yang has written a captivating account, full of personality and drama — and significance. In our time, with fresh contention over immigration, it is worth reading to the last page. For no American should ignore the last two sentences, perhaps the most thought-provoking of the entire immigration debate:
‘’So what difference is there between us, with our precious papers, and the people at our border who are dying to come in?” she asks, and then provides a three-word answer. “There is none.”
ONE MIGHTY AND IRRESISTIBLE TIDE: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965
By Jia Lynn Yang
W.W. Norton, 336 pp. , $26.95
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.