Immigrant Song

How America gets assimilation (mostly) right.

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.

Jan-16-Gjelten-Books
A Nation of Nations: A Great
American Immigration Story

by Tom Gjelten
Simon & Schuster, 416 pp.

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 LBJ 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 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.

Timed deliberately to coincide with the law’s fiftieth anniversary, Gjelten’s book attempts to trace a dotted line from that day on Liberty Island through the lives of several families who subsequently made their way from South Korea, Bolivia, El Salvador, Pakistan, and Libya to Fairfax County, Virginia, a mostly white suburb of Washington, D.C., that has grown into one of America’s most ethnically diverse communities.

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. (But I was disappointed that Eden Center was not in this book!)

Despite their radically different and often traumatic experiences in their home countries, Gjelten’s families’ lives, once they arrived in the United States, did not disturb the centuries-old American immigrant narrative. All were pulled to America by the promise of greater economic opportunity or political freedom for themselves, or at least for their children. They struggled with prejudice, language barriers, and poverty, but by dint of hard work met with some success, especially when measured against what they had left behind. The stories are indeed moving: A Korean couple goes to work in the chicken-processing plants on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and carefully saves enough money to buy a gas station. A Bolivian father learns to fix cars by reading how-to manuals in the Fairfax County Public Library with a Spanish-English dictionary at his side. A Salvadoran hotel maid, though still struggling after twenty years to build a housecleaning business, finds satisfaction in being able to keep her children safe: “I come into my apartment and lock the door, and I see my children sleeping,” Maria Quintanilla Call says. “That’s what America has given me. I can sleep peacefully here and not think somebody is going to come in the night.” A teenager arrives from Libya speaking little English, but wins admission to Georgetown, and finds in America the freedom to become a more devout Muslim.

Fairfax County, Gjelten argues, is a model for how America can absorb its newest immigrants: “The way [Fairfax] responded and the way it incorporated its new population might suggest how America could handle the challenges it had taken on by opening its doors as wide as it did after 1965.” And indeed, the narrative is littered with good men and women doing the right thing, from the high school counselors and principal who found ways to defuse conflict between immigrant gangs, to the English as a Second Language teachers, friendly librarians, Jesuit priests, and well-meaning cops.

But not all the stories of assimilation are uncomplicated. We hear from Tom Davis, the former Republican congressman, who as a Fairfax County supervisor made the decisive vote in approving the construction of the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in 1993. “Certain things in life go to the core of who you are and this was one of those core issues,” Davis said. The mosque is now a hub for Muslim life in Washington, D.C., but also made national headlines for its former imam Anwar al-Aulaqi, who turned out to be an extremist with ties to the 9/11 hijackers and other terrorists, and was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

We meet Robert Frye, a longtime African American member of the Fairfax County school board, who fought to ensure that Fairfax County public schools served new immigrants’ children and did not segregate them into failing schools, even when some argued that immigrant children drained resources from poor African American students. “These families came here through tremendous effort,” he said. “And a part of their vision was to have their kids go to an American school. They did not want an immigrant school.”

A key factor in the successful absorption of immigrants in Fairfax County was due not to anything the county affirmatively did, but to timing. Gjelten notes that the post-1965 immigrants did not move into inner-city ethnic ghettos—the Chinatowns or Little Italys of previous generations—but directly into integrated suburban neighborhoods. The civil rights movement, after all, had not just opened America’s doors to immigrants of color, it had also opened up neighborhoods and schools. With regular exposure to neighbors and classmates of different races and religions, the second generation of Gjelten’s families inevitably became “broad-minded, respectful of cultural differences and universal in outlook, perhaps even to a greater extent than their parents may have expected or wanted.” Reflecting on the fact that a Roman Catholic priest had been his strongest ally when he started a Muslim Students Association chapter at Georgetown, Esam Omeish, the Libyan teenager turned successful doctor profiled in the book, recognized that such broad-mindedness would have been unthinkable in other countries.

It is perhaps this genuine embrace of the ideal of integration and equality that makes the America immigrant experience so much more successful than in Europe and other parts of the world. The idea of America as an imperfect country inspired by, built on, and ever striving to honor the principle of equality is one that empowers immigrants to recognize their ability to become Americans.

As a second-generation American who was always self-conscious about my race, I nevertheless felt empowered by the American story. In second grade, when assigned to make a collage of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I cut out a picture of President Jimmy Carter, pasted it on a piece of paper, and said I wanted to be the first woman president. I bought tricornered hats and quill pens and rolled up my pants into breeches so that I could dress up as my hero Thomas Jefferson, the author of the phrase “All men are created equal.” The civil rights struggle for an America where one could be “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” was a source of inspiration and comfort that I, too, fully belonged in America and was an American.

If, as Gjelten argues, Fairfax did all the right things, then it would have been good to hear about a county that did not do it as well. It might have been worth exploring how another similarly sized and similarly wealthy county’s policies were less generous, and perhaps less effective. The greatest weaknesses in Gjelten’s story are the missing voices. While he does march us through a term-paper-like survey of post-1965 immigration opponents and their various motivations—from overpopulation concerns to employment competition to plain racism—the book would have benefited from more real-life voices of opposition: the supervisors, for instance, who opposed Tom Davis and nearly defeated construction of the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque.

I would have liked to hear more from longtime Fairfax residents, both white and black, about how this tremendous demographic change may or may not have affected their lives and prospects. Gjelten glosses over, for instance, the controversy surrounding the issue of racial imbalance at the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, the Fairfax magnet school that regularly ranks among the best in the country. Today 70 percent of the freshman class is Asian. Just ten black students were admitted for this fall. A complaint against Fairfax County alleging discrimination against black, Hispanic, and poor students in the admissions process is pending with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Gjelten misses a key opportunity to explore this consequence of post-1965 immigration.

The book is also missing voices from the far ends of the immigrant success and assimilation spectrum. We don’t hear from the East and South Asian immigrants who were able to arrive in Fairfax County as professionals, move directly into the
McMansions in the county’s upper-middle-class neighborhoods, enroll their children in the best public schools, and, arguably, enjoy honorary status as whites. And there is very little about the families and individuals at the other end—those broken by the immigrant experience, those for whom America has never become home. Gjelten does include a passage on Anwar al-Aulaqi, who had been recruited by Esam Omeish to serve at the mosque. Near the end of the book, he provides a drive-by analysis of the Tsarnaev brothers, immigrants from Central Asia who became the Boston Marathon bombers. Putting aside these notorious “failed” immigrants (or second-generation immigrants—Aulaqi was born in the U.S.), there are still many others who are merely disillusioned or simply unable to assimilate. Gjelten mentions in passing that Omeish’s older brother, for instance, ends up moving his family back to Jordan, and is later questioned by U.S. officials for his support of certain Muslim charities. Omeish himself criticizes fellow Muslim immigrants who are still “living in Gaza or Mogadishu.” Gjelten also mentions in passing immigrants consigned to multigenerational poverty. The book would have benefited tremendously from including both immigration success and immigration failure stories.

And what of the storied melting pot? As the title, A Nation of Nations, suggests, in this book, if not in American life, the various ethnicities are siloed from each other—the Libyans from the Bolivians from the Koreans and the Salvadorans. But near the end, Gjelten writes of the interracial friendships that sprout up between a second-generation Bolivian and his Korean and Pakistani best friends. It is a brief moment of possibility that the melting pot ideal of America remains within reach. I would have liked to hear even more about the three young men and about their cross-cultural friendship.

Criticisms aside: for anyone who believes passionately in the American ideal— that we are a nation, while occasionally distracted or knocked off track, striving to live closer to its founding principle, that “all are created equal”—A Nation of Nations is a welcome addition to enlarging our understanding of each other and the possibilities of the United States.

June Shih

June Shih is a writer and lawyer living in Alexandria, VA. She was a White House speechwriter for Bill and Hillary Clinton and a senior adviser to the State Department under Hillary Clinton.