How America Gets Assimilation (Mostly) Right

June Shih, a former Clinton administration speechwriter and senior advisor at the State Department, has a great review in our January/February issue of the magazine. As a second generation immigrant from Taiwan who grew up in the Northern Virginia suburbs, she’s uniquely qualified to take a look at Tom Gjelten’s A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story.

With green cards and good jobs (as a physician and a librarian), my parents settled in neighboring Alexandria, Virginia, in the early 1970s. Every Saturday morning, my mother would drive my sister and me along Route 7, past the Seven Corners neighborhood and the nondescript low-rise apartments that figure prominently in Gjelten’s narrative, to Eden Center, a scruffy shopping center that had become home to many small Vietnamese businesses, including a grocery store. So I was especially riveted by Gjelten’s telling of the life stories of my fellow immigrants whose homes I drove by a million times but whose lives and struggles I knew very little about.

The families Gjelten is interested in are families that have been built in the United States since passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act if 1965. Who came to this country as a result of this law? Where did they settle? What did they do?

Finally, how has it worked?

As a teaser, it’s interesting to know that a provision of the law that was supposed to keep America white actually had the opposite effect.

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 anticipate the compounding numbers in chain migration, the relatively low numbers of Europeans seeking to move to the U.S., and the economic and political instability pushing migrants from the global south to the United States. My own Taiwanese American extended family, which now numbers several dozen, began with the single arrival of my mother on a student visa from Taiwan in 1963. By the time she obtained her master’s degree in 1965, she had qualified for a green card as a skilled worker. Over the next two decades, she would use the family reunification preference to directly or indirectly sponsor my father, her parents, and then each of her eight siblings and their families to come to the United States.

How’s that for the law of unintended consequences?

I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading the whole thing. I know I did.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.