In 1966, my mother and grandmother immigrated to the United States from southern China, after waiting seven years for visas in Hong Kong. A decade later, in 1976, Jia Lynn Yang’s mother immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, with a background in microbiology that increased her chances for permanent residency. Yang’s father, who was from Shanghai, was able to stay in the United States after completing school due to a family-reunification preference in immigration law. These arrivals and settlements—Yang’s parents, my mother and grandmother—were made possible after Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, a key piece of legislation that is the centerpiece of Yang’s new book, One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924–1965. That 1965 law overturned decades of immigration restrictions by abolishing the immigration quotas and banning “discrimination against immigrants based on race or ethnicity,” allowing families like ours to make their way to America.
A commonplace belief in American self-understanding is that we are a “nation of immigrants.” Yang’s book is the story of how we arrived at such an identity. She presents a roiling legal drama with a sprawling cast. First we meet Albert Johnson, a newspaper publisher elected to Congress in 1914, two years after he wrote in a local paper that “the greatest menace to the republic today is the open door it affords to the ignorant hordes from Eastern and Southern Europe, whose lawlessness flourishes and civilization is ebbing into barbarism.” Johnson went on to chair the House Immigration Committee and to co-sponsor the severely restrictive Johnson-Reed Act with Sen. David Reed, who also made no attempt to hide his fear and distrust of immigrants.
The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 is where Yang begins her story of this forty-year battle over immigration. In meticulous detail, she reveals how a seemingly singular historical event, like one law’s ratification, is actually a confluence of circumstance, personal agenda, and public emotion. The passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, for instance, converged with the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, public anti-Semitism from prominent figures like Henry Ford, a post–World War I industrial depression, a steady rise in Japanese immigration, and lingering anxieties about white racial purity. All this pushed President Calvin Coolidge to impose severe immigration quotas based on the 1890 census, as well as a literacy test, immigrant-targeted taxes, and a ban on immigration from nearly all countries in Asia. The 1924 law relied on false nostalgia for a census that only seemed to depict a homogenous, Northern European–descended nation: in reality, 15 percent of the nation were immigrants in 1890. Between 1924 and 1965, legislation continued to be drafted in favor of both tightening and loosening immigration restrictions. Many bills failed to even be called to a vote, like the 1938 bill to lift quotas for victims of religious, racial, and political persecution. Some changes happened quietly by executive order, as in 1946 when President Truman declared preferential treatment for displaced persons from World War II and reversed the long-standing requirement that immigrants prove they would not become a public charge, a condition “preposterous for survivors of the war.” In 1950, the Displaced Persons Act was passed, allowing admission of 400,000 new immigrants outside preexisting annual quotas. By 1965, immigration quotas “should have allowed just over 2 million new immigrants. In reality, there had been 3.5 million.” Turns out, many immigrants weren’t counted against the quotas due to “a patchwork of laws” and other special provisions.