Originally Published in The Washington Post
Laura Wides-Muñoz - July 31, 2020
Through distinct lenses, two new books underscore this long-standing tension between Congress and the executive branch and, on a deeper level, the United States’ conflicted relationship with its identity as a nation of immigrants. In “One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965,” Jia Lynn Yang pans wide across the often overlooked 40-year battle to overhaul racist and restrictive immigration laws passed in the early 20th century. The book culminates in the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, or the Hart-Celler Act, which Yang credits for her own family’s immigration to the United States from Taiwan and China — and which has become the bedrock of our current immigration system.
In “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy,” Jacob Soboroff zooms in on President Trump and his administration’s decision to separate children from their parents as a deterrent to border crossers. In doing so, he illuminates how, in the face of congressional inaction, a cadre of presidential advisers can introduce policies with shocking, unintended consequences.
While a Broadway-bound play, “The Melting Pot,” opened in D.C. in 1908 to applause from none other than President Theodore Roosevelt, a little more than a decade later, Yang reminds us, prominent lawmakers in Washington were calling the phrase obsolete. “We no longer are to be a haven, a refuge, for oppressed the whole world over. We found we could not be . . . and America will cease to become a melting pot,” declared Sen. David A. Reed of Pennsylvania shortly before the passage of the 1924 immigration law that bears his name. The law shut the door on immigration from Japan, the last Asian country whose citizens could still receive U.S. visas, and it slashed immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe for several decades.
Congress’s actions carried weight across the Atlantic, where Yang describes a young Adolf Hitler heaping praise on the United States for barring “the immigration of physically unhealthy elements” and “certain races.”
Even the 1965 reform and its focus on family connections over skill sets were due in part to a core group of lawmakers who believed that the law would favor the country’s historic Northern European stream over newer influxes from Africa, Asia and other parts of the world.
Yang sketches lively portraits of the famous and obscure players behind the legislative fights, like Rep. Emanuel Celler, a freshman congressman who came to Washington from Brooklyn in 1923 and found himself a “lost soul,” aching for his wife and baby daughter, but who, like a number of Jewish lawmakers and advocates, became a stalwart defender of postwar refugees and other immigrants. Then there was Takao Ozawa, who arrived in the United States at 19 and petitioned unsuccessfully for the right of Japanese immigrants like himself to become U.S. citizens, arguing in 1915: “In name, General Benedict Arnold was an American, but at heart he was a traitor. In name, I am not an American, but at heart I am a true American.”
The book underscores how many of the nearly century-old debates over our immigration system remain in play: whether the country should prioritize immigrants with high-demand skills over those with family; whether championing immigrants comes at the expense of working-class Americans; the way immigrants are often pushed to “climb the social ladder” by acquiring “whiteness” and distancing from African Americans; and more broadly, whether our nation will cling to its Anglo-European roots or more fully embrace its growing diversity.
At times, the details of the backroom negotiations become mind-numbing. And one is reminded why even historians often shed all but a few protagonists in service of a tight and linear narrative. Yet Yang’s voyage across early-20th-century U.S. immigration debates makes palpable how much diplomacy and perseverance are required to win legislative change. That it took the United States 40 years to throw out the majority of its most-racist immigration policies and modernize its system might offer some hope to those who have been fighting nearly as long to overhaul the latest incarnation of this law.
The 1965 law had another legacy: the first limits on immigration from Latin America. In “Separated,” Soboroff, an NBC and MSNBC correspondent, zeros in on the resulting influx of undocumented immigrants across the southern border and, in the absence of congressional action, the Trump administration’s response: a hastily developed policy of separating parents and children without a plan for tracking and reuniting them.
Soboroff quotes one Health and Human Services staffer’s email from late September 2017, criticizing the Department of Homeland Security’s operations. “They don’t understand . . . these types of cases often end with parent repatriated and kid in our care for months pending home studies, international legal issues, etc.”
But they did understand, Soboroff insists. Many parents, who often couldn’t read the English forms they were given, would sign over their rights to seek asylum and to reunite with their children in the United States, while the children wondered why their parents had abandoned them.
“This place is called a shelter, but effectively these kids are incarcerated,” a stunned Soboroff tells his MSNBC colleague, anchor Chris Hayes, in June 2018, moments after witnessing some 1,500 boys being held in a converted former Walmart.
Soboroff, who acknowledges that he came to the story late, offers generous recognition to fellow journalists and the advocates who saw the looming crisis well before he did — though an index and detailed endnotes would have made it easier to keep track of their findings and given the book a heftier feel. Ultimately, the reporter is the protagonist, providing the book’s strength and emotional core, but also at times an overly self-referential feel.
Trump signed an order to officially end the mass family separations in late June 2018, following a public outcry, though it’s unclear how many children remain separated — in large part because of poor record-keeping. Meanwhile, the administration has sought to replace the program with longer family detentions and to cut down on those even permitted to apply for asylum.
Congress is unlikely to act on immigration in the remaining months of this election cycle. And the Supreme Court’s decision to fast-track the deportation of asylum seekers means people like Juan and José could easily be sent back to their countries before lawmakers ever step in. A lasting solution to the crisis at the border must come from Congress and will probably be as hard-won this time as it was in the 20th century. As both Soboroff and Yang demonstrate, it will inevitably require a reckoning with both the history and the present story we tell ourselves about America being a nation of immigrants. “Like any myth,” Yang writes, “the idea easily goes unexamined — exalted and treated as if it were a divine, immutable basis for this country’s existence, when it is the work of human beings, easily erased by other human beings.”