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Jia Lynn Yang sees the issue of immigration as one of historic complexity that revolves around whether ethnicity should define what makes an American. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Author Jia Lynn Yang reexamines the immigration debate and how it still centers on ‘Americanness’ and ethnicity

Jia Lynn Yang, author of One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924—1965 (Norton, 2020), is national editor at The New York Times. Earlier, as an editor at the Washington Post, she was part of a team awarded a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Donald Trump and Russia.


European immigrants surged into America in the early 1900s. The situation radically changed with the 1924 Immigration Act. What were that law’s key elements?

The law created a national origins quota that for the first time ever imposed numerical limits on immigration to the United States. More important, the law effectively ranked immigrants’ countries of origin by desirability, with countries in northern and western Europe given far more slots than those in southern and eastern parts of the continent. The law banned any immigrants who did not qualify for naturalization, which overnight blocked most migration from Asia. The impact was dramatic: Immigration immediately plummeted. More immigrants entered the country 1900-1910 than between 1931 and 1971 total.

Immigration foes latched onto the racist idea that people not from northern or western Europe were inherently inferior—that they lacked the bloodstock to be Americans.

Anti-immigration forces touted the widely embraced field of eugenics, which was quite powerful in those days. Adherents believed that by scrutinizing human traits, good and bad, and supposedly showing that some traits seemed more conspicuous in certain races, humanity could perfect itself by selecting for more desirable qualities. This now-discredited theory was embraced by some of the most elite members of Manhattan society and intellectuals who studied everything from economics to environmentalism. 

Eugenics proponents Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin were a favorite resource for anti-immigration politicians.

Davenport and Laughlin had a laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, where they amassed data ostensibly proving some races superior to others. They were interested in shaping American laws to reflect their supposed discoveries. The House Immigration Committee treated Laughlin as a bona fide expert and used his research to justify its national origins quotas. He believed that any immigrant who did not make good because of “insanity, feeble-mindedness, moral turpitude or shiftlessness” should be deported. “A moron can slip through the immigration sieve…pretty easily,” Laughlin testified to Congress, and later said, “Our failure to sort immigrants on the basis of natural worth is a very serious national menace.” 

Senator Pat McCarran (D-Nevada) thwarted numerous tries at immigration reform.

McCarran twice chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, in the mid-1940s and early 1950s. Most Senate legislation had to pass through that committee, giving him enormous power. He could block any bill he didn’t like, in particular, attempts to overhaul the immigration laws. McCarran was anti-communist and argued that any move to loosen immigration would allow radicals and spies to enter America and undermine the nation from within. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act essentially reaffirmed ethnic quotas, though it did allow for the naturalization of Asian immigrants, which until then had been largely banned.

President Harry Truman changed the immigration narrative by advocating that the U.S. take in a large number of post-World War II refugees. What was his reasoning?

Truman felt if the country had gone to all this trouble to fight and win World War II, it made no sense to leave Europe with an untenable refugee crisis. So he pushed for the country’s first law addressing refugees, establishing a foundation we still rely on. Truman explicitly tied immigration to American foreign policy goals, arguing that to win the Cold War and be a moral actor on the world stage, the nation needed to update its immigration laws to accommodate those who had been displaced.

As Congress was debating immigration reform in 1921 a cartoonist opposed the tradition of unlimited entry in overtly ethnic terms. (Granger, NYC)

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was the first major reform in 40 years. What changed?

That law eliminated national origins quotas set in 1924 and set the principle that immigrants would not be subject to discrimination based on race or ethnicity. Numerical caps remained, but the order in which people were admitted now depended on criteria other than race: did they have family here already, for instance, or special skills. At the same time, the law imposed the first cap on the number of immigrants from the Western Hemisphere. 

That law’s family reunification provision had unforeseen effects.

Supporters of reuniting families argued that doing so would help keep America more White. By 1965 few actual immigrants remained alive in the country; the idea was to control the ethnic makeup of later arrivals, presumably European. Instead it became a major source of immigration from outside Europe, as relatives here sponsored siblings, who could then bring in their spouses and children or parents, and so on. 

The debate seems to have changed little in 100 years—or has the issue grown more complicated?

The arguments have stayed largely the same, and they center on whether to define Americanness by ethnicity. That said, the America of 2021 hardly looks anything like the 1924 or the 1965 versions. The percentage of foreign-born individuals in the population is back where it was around the turn of the 20th century, but the array of countries from which people are migrating is so much larger. The multiculturalism is unlike anything we’ve seen, and well beyond what anyone who argued for or against these laws could have imagined. That can make the issue seem more complex, though I’d argue this issue was never simple. The country had an open border system until about a century ago. Does it consider going back to that status? Or does it continue down the current road of visas, deportations, and an aggressive security force at the border? And if we do cap the number of people we admit, how does the country decide who’s worthy of admission and who isn’t? None of these questions strikes me as easy for a democracy to navigate.


This interview was originally published in the August 2021 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.