How America became diverse

This chart slows the dramatic shifts in the flow of immigrants to the US. Image: Metrocosm

On as many as a dozen occasions in the course of the twentieth century, the United States Congress attempted to write the rules for immigration. Twice the result was major legislation signed by the President. The first was in 1924, with the passage of a racist bill that strangled the flow of immigrants for four decades. The second passed in 1965, reopening the floodgates. One law sharply reduced the percentage of foreign-born residents. The other dramatically increased it once again — and, in the process, changed America’s ethnic composition. Now, in One Mighty and Irresistible Tide, journalist Jia Lynn Yang traces the history of that second bill. Her account casts light on today’s immigration debate. It’s both eye-opening and timely.

A contentious issue for two centuries

As Yang points out, “It is only from a comfortable distance, in white America, that different immigrant groups can appear to have easy, natural alliances with one another. In reality, there have often been intergroup conflicts, sometimes violent, over jobs, housing, and political representation.”

One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924–1965 by Jia Lynn Yang (2021) 331 pages ★★★★★

Contrasting the motivation for the two laws

The architects of the 1965 immigration law

Key players in the immigration debate

  • Lehman was Governor of New York throughout the New Deal and a Senator representing the state in the US Senate from 1949 to 1957. In a 1952 radio address, the former partner in Lehman Brothers helped bring the issue of immigration back into the public debate by highlighting the inequities of the law then in force. And he fought doggedly against McCarran and Feighan’s unrelenting campaign to stifle efforts for change.
  • Harrison served as US Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization during World War II and reformed the agency during this tenure. He was instrumental in persuading President Harry Truman to address the problems of displaced persons, many of them Jewish refugees, following the war. His work remained influential long after his death in 1955.
  • Congressman Walter Judd, a former medical missionary in China, served as a Republican from Minnesota from 1943 to 1963. He was an internationalist who worked closely with President Truman to support the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and foreign aid.

Emmanuel Celler

By 1949, however, he had risen to the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee. Celler served in that post for all but two years until 1973. He was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Finally, in 1965 he drafted and managed the adoption of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which eliminated the racist national origins formula as a factor in immigration.

Three US Presidents

About the author

Jia Lynn Yang. Image: Lorin Klaris / New York Times

Jia Lynn Yang is the National Editor of the New York Times. According to the book’s publisher, she “was previously deputy national security editor at The Washington Post, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Trump and Russia. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. In her website, she discloses that her “family immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in the 1970s and was able to stay in the country thanks to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.”

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