IN A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story, veteran journalist Tom Gjelten tells the “immigration story” through the lives of various immigrants named throughout the book. It is an excellent history that details the politics and policies that have molded immigration laws and the impact of immigration on the United States. While first published several years ago, Gjelten’s book has been recently reissued as a trade paperback and remains a valuable guide to the factious debate over immigration policy that currently consumes American politics.
The term “immigrant” is commonly used to denote anyone who is in the United States from a foreign country, whether legally or not. It would have been helpful if Gjelten had limited his use of this word to the people whose life stories he tells — people who were “vetted,” that is, examined and found qualified to come to the United States to reside permanently. The largest group of such immigrants are “family-based” — persons admitted to the United States after having been sponsored by citizen and permanent resident US relatives.
The second-largest group are “employment-based.” This type of visa is open to persons of extraordinary ability, outstanding professors and researchers, multinational executives and managers, members of the professions holding advanced degrees or aliens of exceptional ability, and those requiring a test of the labor market (i.e., skilled workers, professionals, and other workers). This employment-based immigrant information is important because it addresses the immigration critics’ call for a “merit-based” immigration policy — which, to an extent, we already have.
For example, Gjelten relates the story of a Korean who obtained a “work permit” and came to Maryland to work for a company “in a plant where chickens were slaughtered, cleaned, and packaged for sale.” This permit was “a special EB-3 employment visa, [offered to] immigrants who were able and willing to take jobs that U.S. workers scorned.” In fact, this type of immigrant visa is only obtained after there is evidence of unsuccessful substantial recruiting for US citizens and other individuals who are legally qualified to work in the United States.
A shortcoming in Gjelten’s narrative is that he unfortunately leaves out another small, but important group that has sought a new life in the United States: refugees — persons who, because of a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion” are unable or unwilling to return to their country.
Gjelten does more, however, than tell us the “immigration story.” He brings to life (and to light) the benefits that immigrants bring to the US. Speaking of first-generation immigrants, who were “preoccupied with the struggle to survive, adapt, and provide for their families in the new land,” he states:
[T]he contribution immigrants make to American economic culture should not be measured narrowly in whether they go into business on their own. Their enterprising character may come out in how diligent they are in seeking employment opportunities, how creatively they think about their prospects, and how energetically they develop their own skills and knowledge. Given the linguistic, educational, social, and financial barriers immigrants routinely face, their self-reliance and their work ethic consistently set them apart from the general population. This goes even for the undocumented immigrants who sneak across the U.S. border in search of an opportunity to make some money. They may stand in a parking lot with other day laborers waiting for someone to hire them for a few hours, but they are not likely to be found at a stoplight with a hand-lettered cardboard sign asking for a handout. They look for work instead.
Regarding the second generation (children of immigrants), those who have experienced ethnic prejudice may become alienated from the American mainstream and more inclined to identify with their ethnic backgrounds. In other words, they experience “identity shifts.” Tom Gjelten quotes Alejandro Portes, a sociologist, who wrote in 1996:
The adaptation of the second generation [i.e., by identifying themselves as Americans] will be decisive in establishing the long-term outlook for contemporary immigration. It is indeed among the second generation, not the first, where such issues as the continuing dominance of English, the growth of a welfare-dependent population, the resilience of culturally distinct urban enclaves, and the decline or growth of ethnic inter-marriages will be decided permanently.
The politics and policies that influenced American immigration laws began with the founding of America and dealt with the issue of who should be welcomed as immigrants to this new nation. George Washington declared: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.” However, Gjelten tells us that “the first immigration law passed by Congress in 1790 was explicitly racist — it offered U.S. citizenship only to ‘free white persons.’” A century later, in 1897, the co-founder of the Immigration Restriction League posed the question: “Do we want this country to be peopled by British, German, and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin, and Asiatic races, historically downtrodden, atavistic, and stagnant?”
The northern European bias continued well into the 20th century. From Gjelten, we learn that a 1929 law was passed allocating immigration “slots” on the basis of the candidates’ national origins. This was reinforced by the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, which allocated each of the Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries “barely a hundred immigrant visas per year, while Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries of northern and western Europe each received thousands of reserved slots.”
The author informs us how this changed with the legislation of 1965, which replaced the criterion of national origin with the world-wide allocation of an equal number of immigration “slots,” “putting applicants from around the world on a mostly equal basis.” As immigrants, all “were enterprising, and together their lives represented the experience of a diversifying nation”; this created for the country “unprecedented racial and ethnic diversity.” Of these immigrants, he tells us the following:
So they came, in far greater numbers than the legislators of 1965 had anticipated. In the next fifty years, the percentage of the U.S. population born outside the country tripled and shifted dramatically in composition, with immigrants arriving from Vietnam, Korea, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico, Central America, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and may other places previously unrepresented. Their experiences were not so different from those of my Norwegian ancestors. They came because opportunities were lacking in their own countries, and they were attracted by what America offered. Like the immigrants of a century earlier, they took risks and were rewarded for their perseverance and initiative. The obstacles they faced, on the other hand, were bigger than anything their predecessors encountered. These new immigrants could not disappear easily into a white Euro-American society, no matter how hard they tried. Language barriers sometimes kept them isolated; even their ideas about God, family, and work could set them apart. Devout Muslims stood out in particular. In this alien environment, some immigrants would experience rejection and a disappointment that cut even deeper than the pain that drove them to leave home in the first place; others discovered that hard work and ambition could actually lead somewhere in this country.
Gjelten identifies another and new issue that separately arose in the mid-1960s:
a surge in the number of undocumented workers, largely Mexican, coming across the border to take low-wage jobs in the United States. The development, unrelated to the 1965 legislation, was prompted by the elimination in 1964 of the bracero program. Laborers who were previously permitted to work temporarily in the United States were now reclassified as illegal immigrants if they tried to return to their former places of employment.
Gjelten explains the immigration debate then became focused “on the impact on U.S. workers, a concern that would only grow as the number of immigrants steadily increased in the years ahead.”
“Immigration restrictionists,” according to Gjelten, have raised a number of arguments — some of which resonate today — to limit immigration. They argue that immigrants take away jobs from American-born workers or that immigration is a potential environmental concern (i.e., population growth is straining the Earth’s resources). A major argument has also been “that the new immigrants were less likely to become good Americans.” This relates to an important concern for Gjelten — assimilation: “The definition of a unique American nationality was indeed becoming more complicated, and immigration critics charged that the institutions set up to facilitate assimilation of these new groups were failing in that task.” Thus, an important issue arose: can there be “social assimilation and national identity”? This issue is important because over the years one way to mobilize against mass immigration has been to appeal to “Americans’ fear that they were being overrun by culturally alien foreigners.” This antipathy to the “new immigrants” was also seen in those who focused on “the quality of the populations that were growing most rapidly.”
Another restrictionist argument is based on the fact that two thirds of the immigrants are family-based. The argument is to limit family reunification visas to “nuclear families” (i.e., immediate family members of US citizens and permanent residents) and to eliminate brothers and sisters of adult US citizens from the family-sponsored preferences. Additionally, restrictionists argue “immigrants [should] be chosen ‘on the basis of the skills they contribute to the U.S. economy,’” rather than family relationships. But, as mentioned above, since 1964, we have already dealt with the “skills issue” by the current employment-based immigration preference. Legislation to limit visas for extended family members failed in Congress after immediate opposition from several interest groups, including Asian-American and Latino groups.
Commenting on an organization in the “modern movement to restrict immigration,” Gjelten states: “One of the most effective ways to highlight the threat that immigrants might present to traditional America was to link them to terrorists.” Additionally, regarding Muslims, although the author devotes a chapter to Muslim Americans that documents several of their life stories, he also looks back to the 9/11 attacks:
For the anti-immigrant activists, the story of subversive Muslims in America beautifully reinforced their nativist inclinations […] Muslims seemed just different enough, just dangerous enough, to present the biggest challenge to America’s welcoming attitude since the 1920s and a fundamental test of the 1965 promise of a bias-free immigration policy.
The author’s last two chapters are on “Politics” and “Americanization.” The last chapter, “Americanization,” poses the question of whether immigrants who became American citizens would genuinely embrace “the American ideology” (but, to this reader, it’s still not clear what Gjelten means by “the American ideology”). Gjelten comments that “America offered big advantages over other countries, but in return the immigrants took on obligations,” in particular “the responsibilities of American citizenship.”
On politics, he argues the new wave of immigration will affect elections:
The 2012 presidential results provided new evidence that the demographic changes in America were tilting the electorate in the Democrats’ favor. The white share of the voting population was continuing to decline, as it had for twenty years, while the Hispanic and Asian-origin shares were rising, and both those groups went solidly for Obama.
However, subsequent to the publication of this book, the 2016 presidential results provide evidence that it is not so easy to predict the outcomes of demographic changes in the United States. Even so, the impact of these demographic changes is coming sharply into view. On February 28, 2017, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article entitled “White House’s Real Immigration Goal Emerges,” which begins:
Behind President Trump’s efforts to step up deportations and block travel from seven mostly Muslim countries lies a goal that reaches far beyond any immediate terrorism threat: a desire to reshape American demographics for the long term and keep out people who Trump and senior aides believe will not assimilate.
In pursuit of that goal, Trump in his first weeks in office has launched the most dramatic effort in decades to reduce the country’s foreign-born population and set in motion what could become a generational shift in the ethnic makeup of the U.S.
Trump and top aides have become increasingly public about their underlying pursuit, pointing to Europe as an example of what they believe is a dangerous path that Western nations have taken. Trump believes European governments have foolishly allowed Muslims with extreme views to settle in their countries, sowing seeds for unrest and recruitment by terrorist groups.
The article continues:
President Obama and his aides also sometimes contrasted the relative lack of terrorism in the U.S. experience with the higher level of violence in Europe. But they attributed the difference to America having done a better job than European countries of assimilating foreign-born residents.
Trump and his aides do not accept that. In their eyes, the U.S. has been spared mostly because its Muslim population remains much smaller than that of France, Germany or other European nations. Muslims make up about 7.5% of the French population, but only about 1% in the U.S., according to estimates by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
On March 1, 2017, The New York Times reported on President Donald Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress on February 28, 2017, in a front-page article that is subtitled: “In Remarks Before Address, He Signals Shift on Tough Immigration Stance”:
But Mr. Trump made only a glancing reference to an immigration overhaul in his speech, calling for a new “merit-based” system that would admit only those able to support themselves financially. Over all he took a hard line on immigration, much as he had during the campaign.
“It is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur,” Mr. Trump said. “Those given the high honor of admission to the United States should support this country and love its people and its values. We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America — we cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.”
Another article in the same edition of The New York Times, “Trump Seesaws on Providing Legal Status for Undocumented Immigrants,” states:
He also said attracting low-skilled immigrants is contributing to the nation’s problems, and suggested modeling the country’s legal immigration system after Canada and Australia, which attract high-skilled workers.
On March 3, 2017, Donald J. Trump took to Twitter to say: “Nick Adams new book, Green Card Warrior, is a must read. The merit-based system is the way to go. Canada, Australia!”
Given the president’s avowed preference for the Australian and Canadian systems, how do they differ from ours? On June 1, 2016, BBC News presented a program entitled “Immigration points-based systems compared.” Regarding the Australian points-based system, this BBC News program stated that Australia operates two immigration “schemes”: 1) the Migration Programme, which caters to “economic immigrants,” and 2) the Humanitarian Programme for refugees and displaced persons. The Migration Programme divides available visas into two broad classes: skilled workers and employer-sponsored. Regarding their points-based system, BBC News states:
Skilled-worker visas are points-tested, and to be eligible for one a person must meet a 65-point minimum. Skilled workers include professional and manual workers, with accountants and mechanics alike earning 60 points for their occupation. Those on the lower end of the scale, at 40 points, include youth workers and interior decorators.
For people in a job on the skilled-worker list, points are awarded for factors including age, recognised qualifications, and previous experience working abroad.
Those on employee-sponsored visas are not points-tested.
Regarding the Canadian points-based system, the BBC News program reported:
Canada was the first country to introduce a points-based system, in 1967. According to a report by the think-tank CentreForum, the Canadian system’s distinguishing feature is that it “prioritises broadly desirable human capital, rather than a specific job offer”.
Like other countries, Canada distinguishes between skilled workers and other kinds of immigrant.
Those applying for a federal skilled worker visa without a job offer are capped at 25,500, plus 1,000 each for a number of professional and technical professions.
Some migrants can receive greater weighting for going to a particular territory, such as Nova Scotia.
To qualify for Canadian immigration, a person has to meet a minimum of 67 points, with the maximum for each area as follows: 25 points from their educational background, 24 points from proficiency in the English and French languages, 21 points for previous work experience, 10 points for being in the prime age of employment, and up to 10 if one has an offer of employment. Financial background is also taken into consideration.
President Trump’s administration has now proposed legislation on a number of immigration issues, including the requirements for and the maximum number of immigrant visas allocated per fiscal year to the family-sponsored immigration category.
Currently, there are over three times more immigrant visas allocated to the family-sponsored category than to the employment-based category. Trump’s stated preference for a “merit-” or “point-based” system is the basis for his proposal to limit family-sponsored and increase “merit-based” visa quotas. How Congress and the immigrant groups of the United States will react to such changes remains to be seen, but a deeply divisive debate over these issues may be safely predicted.
In evaluating, and possibly responding to such legislation, A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story is an outstanding and important book that enlightens us about the United States’s history with immigration and, in particular, the stories of family-sponsored immigrants. It should be read by those who will play a role in, or who will otherwise have an interest in, deciding the policies that will shape the future of “immigration into the Bosom of America.”
John Joannes is a leading immigration lawyer based in Los Angeles, California, and co-author of “The Immigration Reform and Control Act Handbook,” lectures regularly on immigration law, and has appeared as an expert witness in immigration cases.