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For decades, U.S. immigration law favored Europeans, reflecting America’s prizing of its Anglo-Saxon roots. But with the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, the U.S. stopped allocating immigrant visas based on national origin. At last, people from around the world had a better chance to apply for a new life in the United States. Prior to that time, fewer than 5 percent of Americans were foreign-born. Today, that number has tripled – and has a radically different composition. Fifty years after the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, a look at how America’s “founding myth of openness” has been tested, and how the law has transformed our nation in the decades since.
- Tom Gjelten Covers religion and belief for NPR; covered national security and international affairs for NPR for many years
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Excerpted from A NATION OF NATIONS by Tom Gjelten. Copyright © 2015 by Tom Gjelten. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. It received less attention than that civil rights or voting rights act of the same era, but the 1965 immigration and naturalization act is one of the most critical laws in our recent history. That says veteran NPR correspondent, Tom Gjelten. With it came a huge influx of immigrants to the U.S. from around the world and a dramatic shift in the composition of America.
MS. DIANE REHMNow on the 50th anniversary of the act, Gjelten reflects in its impact on the country to date and its continued importance as we look forward. His new book is titled, "A Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story." And Tom Gjelten joins me here in the studio. Throughout the hour, we'll be taking your calls. Join us at 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And Tom Gjelten, what a pleasure to see you.
MR. TOM GJELTENIt's always great to see you again.
REHMThank you, Tom. Your own family is part of this story.
GJELTENYeah. My grandfather on my mother's side and both grandparents on my father's side, his grandparents, all came from Norway. And I start the book with that story because it was interesting to me to look at the forces that drove them to leave their home country and to come across the ocean to the United States, not speaking the language and was a very stressful experience for immigrants.
GJELTENIt is during any period and that time, they knew they would never go back to their home country again so what were the forces that drove them to leave? And the reason I opened the book with that story is because I just find so much similarity between their situation and their decision to immigrate and the decision of millions of people these days to immigrate. It really isn't that different.
REHMDid you have an opportunity to talk with them about their experience?
GJELTENWell, my mother's father, who came here by himself when he was 19 years old and, you know, made his way out to North Dakota and went to a one-room school, a big Norwegian guy sitting in the classroom with, you know, 8 or 9-year-olds to learn English, and he was very attached to the old country, to Norway. He went back a couple of times. He wrote letters back and forth to his relatives and he lived well into this 80s.
GJELTENSo yeah, I certainly talked to him many times about his experience. He used to tell us Norwegian folk tales so I had a pretty good sense of his immigration experience.
REHMThat's great. Before 1965, what did the immigration picture look like?
GJELTENWell, in 1960, you know, every 10 years there's a census and in 1960, 9 out of -- or rather 7 out of 8 immigrants to the United States were coming from Europe. And by 2010, 9 out of 10 immigrants were coming from outside Europe. So in these 50 years, we've seen a dramatic change. Immigration to the United States really, up until 1965, was almost entirely from Europe.
GJELTENAnd that is the biggest change that we have seen in the last 50 years.
REHMAnd what happened in 1965 was the passage of this incredibly important act that you write about in your book, "A Nation of Nations."
GJELTENThat's right, Diane. And as you said in the intro, this needs to be seen in the context of the civil rights movement because the reason that immigration was so dominated by people coming from Europe was precisely because of discriminatory U.S. law that allocated visas for people who wanted to immigrate here on the basis of their race and nationality. If you were Asian or African or Middle Eastern, the chances of you getting a immigrant visa were almost nil, particularly if you were Asian.
GJELTENIf you were European, if you were German, if you were from a Scandinavian countries like my forefathers, if you were from Britain or Ireland, you could come right in, no questions asked. There were plenty of visas reserved for them. But it was a really -- and I don’t think it's an exaggeration to say it was a racist immigration policy. So in the 1960s, in the -- at the peak of the civil rights movement, we passed the civil rights act that ended discrimination in public accommodations.
GJELTENWe passed the voting rights act. And then, Congress extended that same sense of justice to immigration policy and removed those racial and national provisions in our immigration policy. Basically, put people all around the world on roughly the same basis.
REHMWhy? Why did they do it?
GJELTENYou know, it was inspired by idealism. There's really no other explanation for it. Well, there is actually another explanation, which is that candidates for office had to worry about voters from ethnic backgrounds, particularly from southern and eastern Europe. They didn't -- they weren't worried about Asian and African or Middle Eastern constituencies. They were worried about Italians and Greeks and Poles who were similarly disadvantaged.
GJELTENNot as badly as Asians and Africans and Middle Easterners, but they were similarly disadvantaged and so within, particularly around the northeast, you know, there was a real drive, a real determination to end those discriminatory quotas so that was kind of a political calculation. But I think the bigger calculation was simply that this was a very idealistic time. This was the great society Congress. This is the Congress that passed all kinds of legislation that really changed the character of the American state.
GJELTENAnd that principle that underlay the civil rights act also inspired the immigration act of 1965.
REHMYou know, like your one grandparents, my parents, my father and his family came here to this country from Beirut in 1907 and then my father went back to the old country in 1929 to Alexandria, Egypt to pluck my mother, who was then engaged to someone else. But my father served in the first World War. He was an American citizen. He was drafted at the end of the war.
REHMSo I'm sure that part of that played a role in this thinking about the need for immigrants.
GJELTENWell, at the time that your parents came here, at the time that my grandparents came here, immigration to the United States was a huge phenomenon. We are just now beginning to get back to that level. Right now, about 14 percent of the U.S. population was born outside the country. That's basically the way it was when your parents came here as well and when my grandparents came here as well.
GJELTENThe early years of the 20th century were a time of great immigration.
GJELTENAnd the sad thing is, Diane, that that produced a backlash. It produced a backlash of xenophobia. It produced a backlash of racism and in 1924, there was a very highly restrictive immigration act was passed that basically slammed the door on immigration. And it was, in many ways, a reaction to that big immigration influx in first 20 years of the 20th century.
REHMAnd, of course, it wasn't until Lyndon Johnson came in and began to lead that fight for immigration reform.
GJELTENWell, actually, John Kennedy was the president who really began lead -- Harry Truman was in favor of immigration reform. John Kennedy came in and was elected in 1960. As I said before, this was an important issue for his urban and ethnic constituencies. He proposed the original version of the immigration act in 1963. It didn't go anywhere, largely because of opposition. It was really only after Lyndon Johnson got that big majority in the 1964 election that he was able to push it.
GJELTENAnd, Diane, he actually sort of came late to the cause. He had voted to uphold national origin quotas as a senator in the early '50s, but when he became president, he made a big effort to carry on what he thought were John Kennedy's priorities and immigration reform was definitely one of them. So once he came into office, he took that as his own cause and pushed it very hard.
REHMWhat about the quota on Asians? Was that a remnant of the second World War?
GJELTENIt goes back further than that, Diane. I think it was probably a remnant of the Chinese exclusion act, which was passed in 1882 that just as the name implies, excluded Chinese from coming to the United States and...
REHMOn what grounds?
GJELTENWell, originally, it was because many Chinese came to the United States to work on the transcontinental railroad and then after the railroad was finished, you had thousands and thousands of Chinese workers and, you know, there's a feeling in the American labor movement that they were competing with native Americans for jobs and there was, you know, there was a lot of hostility to them.
GJELTENUnlike other immigrant groups, the Chinese tended to keep more to themselves. They had very distinctive dress. They tended to live in more isolated communities and many of them were men so they didn't really integrate into society the way that families might integrate. So there was a lot of anti-Chinese prejudice and this carried over into the 20th century. And this was really the most odious aspect of U.S. immigration policy up until 1965.
GJELTENIf you were a British citizen or a Canadian citizen who happened to have Asian ancestry, even, like, two generations back, you could not immigrate to the United States as a Canadian or as a Brit.
REHMTom Gjelten, he's correspondent for NPR covering religion and belief. His brand new book is titled "A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story." Short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Tom Gjelten is here with me. You know him as a correspondent for NPR. He covered national security and international affairs for NPR for many years. He's a frequent guest host on this program. Now he is correspondent covering religion and belief. His brand new book is titled, "A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story." We have a couple of emails. One from Vatslav, who says he's a big fan of yours and your previous book, "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba." Please tell us about your thoughts on the new developments in Cuba. As a person who immigrated to this country as a young kid, I can't wait to read the new book, says Vatslav.
GJELTENWell, you know, here's something that I'll confess, Diane. The 1965 Immigration Act, which I am writing about -- which I have written about and which we're talking about today -- actually included a pretty important provision in there for the settlement of Cuban refugees. And in going back over the old newspaper clippings, I saw that that was actually the headline. Now, I didn't think that was the most newsworthy aspect of the law. But at the time, you know, this got a lot of attention because this was at the high...
REHMWhat was the headline?
GJELTENThe headline was that people fleeing Cuba would be allowed into the United States as refugees. And that hadn't quite been the case before.
REHMAll they had to do was set foot on shore.
GJELTENThere was a combination of two laws: The Cuban Adjustment Act in '64 and the Immigration Act of '65 basically meant that any Cuban who was able to get out of Cuba and make it to the United States could stay here permanently. So there is a connection there. And, you know, the United States has a long tradition of taking refugees from conflicts all over the world. And, of course, during the 1980s, in particular, there were a tremendous influx of refugees from places like Vietnam and Afghanistan and Africa and so forth.
GJELTENBut Vatslav -- is it Vatslav -- wanted to know about my feeling about what's going on in Cuba. And of course, as you said, I'm covering religion right now and I'm following Pope Francis...
GJELTEN...and he's heading to Cuba.
GJELTENI was in Cuba in 1998 when Pope John Paul II visited.
GJELTENIt was a truly monumental event, because that government was not accustomed to sharing the stage with anybody. And along came a pope and, you know, I went to all of his open-air masses and there were no Cuban officials up there on the stage...
GJELTEN...with him. And all these people were coming and for the first time they were going to these huge rallies and hearing somebody else other than Fidel or Raul Castro talking to them. So that was an early indication of how ready Cubans were for sort of some other voices in their life. And that process has continued. I think many people have been disappointed at how slow change has come to Cuba. The United States, this administration now thinks that it can accelerate that process of change and promotion of democracy by engaging Cuba. I think the jury is still out on that. I do know that a lot of people have been disappointed that things have not changed more quickly there.
REHMAnd if the pope speaks directly to those Cuban people, to what extent will the leaders of Cuba be right there with him?
GJELTENWell, unlike in 1998, Raul Castro now says he's going to follow the pope around wherever he goes. And so he's going to try to ride his coattails a little bit, as it were. You know, after visiting with the pope in Rome this spring, Raul came out and said he was so impressed by him that he was going to start praying again, or thinking about it.
REHMHow about that. So you will be with the pope...
GJELTENI'm not going to Cuba for this.
REHMYou're not going to Cuba.
GJELTENI'm going to be following him around up here.
REHMGood. That's great. And, of course, his statements, his outspokenness on various issues -- I mean, I have to ask you about this -- has upset the Curia, has upset the Vatican. So there is truly a rift going on.
GJELTENWell, yeah, we've learned that there is some -- that he's rattled some cages over there, particularly around Vatican finances. You had the author of a book on the Vatican bank on this program. It was a very impressive interview. I enjoyed that very much. So, yeah, he's shaking things up. There's no question about it.
REHMAll right. The impact of the Immigration Act of 1965 really had sort of unexpected results, didn't it?
GJELTENIt did. And there's an interesting story around that, Diane, because the original version of the Act, as proposed by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and by the sponsors -- Philip Hart of Michigan and Emanuel Celler of New York -- took away the national origins quotas. And as President Johnson said, we're going to allow people to come here based on what they can contribute to America, not on what -- not where they're coming from. And the idea was that those immigrants that had exceptional skills...
GJELTEN...and education and training that would be considered advantageous to the United States would get priority. Well, there were a lot of people in Congress that still were uncomfortable with the idea of letting people in from sort of very different backgrounds than what the American population had at that time. They were uncomfortable with so many Asians and Africans and Latin Americans and Middle Easterners coming in, so they changed that immigration proposal. And instead of giving visas first to those people who had the skills that were needed in this country, they decided to give the visas instead, first, to those people who had relatives in this country.
GJELTENAnd the thought was that, if they favored people with relatives here, they would replicate the existing ethnic profile of the country and they could actually accomplish the same thing that the national origin's quotas had done, which is that, you know, if there was mostly Europeans living in this country, you'd get mostly European immigrants coming in because they were the ones who had relatives here. What happened was that this backfired in a huge way. Because, at the time, in the late '60s, the forces pushing people to come to the United States really were much more active in the Third World, the developing world, and not, you know, Europeans weren't anxious to leave anymore.
GJELTENSo you got one African coming here on a student visa or perhaps a Korean woman who was married to a U.S. serviceman coming in here, and the family unification provision meant that then, as soon as they were naturalized, they could bring in all their adult brothers and sisters and you got this phenomenon of chain migration, which is now accounting for three out of four immigrants to the United States.
GJELTENAnd the ironic thing is that this was precisely a change that was intended to bring about the exact opposite result to replicate the existing profile of the country. So it's one example of how unintended the consequences of this law were. And it's a lesson that, often, laws have unintended consequences.
REHMYou focus on five families. Tell us how you chose them and what it is they represent.
GJELTENWell, Diane, for me, the biggest significance of the 1965 Act is the way that it diversified America ethnically. I mean, as I said, prior to 1960, America was very much a European country. Almost all the immigrants were European. As a result -- a direct result of the 1965 Act, the immigrant flow in this country became highly diverse. And we now have a much more diverse population than this country has ever had.
GJELTENWhich raises issues about acculturation, about integration, about what is our national identity? Are we really a European country, which I think so many Americans have long assumed? Or are we something different? Are we genuinely a multicultural nation that incorporates people from very different and nontraditional backgrounds, non-European backgrounds? So I wanted to find families whose experience in this country sort of represented that non-European, nontraditional immigrant experience.
GJELTENThe people that I chose -- in the beginning, I was hoping to find people who could directly trace their immigration to the '65 Act. That proved difficult because a lot of people don't really know exactly...
GJELTEN...what their lawyers were able to accomplish. But what these five families all have in common is that they came from non-European, nontraditional backgrounds and their experience in the United States was one of overcoming challenges, of dealing with the, you know, the pressures that people from different backgrounds face in this country. That was more important to me. And I -- and the other thing is that, you know, that as a journalist, you have to find people who are willing to spill their guts out...
GJELTEN...who are willing to spend hours and hours and hours talking about pretty personal histories. And a lot of people feel uncomfortable with that, so that was another huge consideration. And, finally, I wanted to make sure that everybody that I profiled was here legally. These were people who came within the law. There's a whole big debate about undocumented immigrants. I didn't want to get in to that. I wanted to focus on people who followed the rules, came here within the law and, you know, nevertheless, had some real challenges to overcome.
REHMTalk about the Muslim family you found.
GJELTENI thought it was important, again, to include at least one Muslim family in this group. Because Muslims are, right now, one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the country. And it's a little hard to specify that, because the census doesn't sort people out by religion. But, you know, there are various surveys that have been done that suggest that, in fact, Muslims are the fastest-growing immigrant group in the country. And particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, all the issues that we talk about with acculturation, identify, assimilation, whatever words you want to use, are particularly acute for Muslim immigrants. So I wanted to focus on a Muslim immigrant family.
GJELTENI chose a family that came from Libya. Isam Omish (sp?) was a young man of 16 when he came here with his parents. He didn't speak any English. His brothers and sisters didn't speak any English.
GJELTENThis would have -- this was 1983, I believe. I'd have to go back and check my -- I think it was 1983. They settled in northern Virginia. He went to J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, northern Virginia, which was a turbulent high school at the time. It had just gone through desegregation. There were Vietnamese refugees coming into the high school, there were Central Americans coming in. He had a really inspiring high school experience...
GJELTEN...even though he was a freshman when he started school and not speaking a word of English. By the time he graduated just three years later, he was a straight-A student and got a...
GJELTEN...scholarship to Georgetown University.
GJELTENAnd, you know, his experience, which is similar to so many immigrant stories, is one of perseverance, incredible discipline, hard work, determination to get ahead.
GJELTENParental support. His family was not divided, which so many immigrant families are. And, you know, this -- I think one of the things that had interested me the most about this family, Diane, is that they weren't particularly religious back in Libya. It was only in America that they became religious. And Isam was, as a 16-year-old boy, sort of got in touch with his Islamic faith in a way that he probably wouldn't have back in Libya. And it was because he found -- what he found so attractive about the United States was the atmosphere of tolerance and appreciation for differences. And he found that he was free, as a Muslim immigrant in the United States, to explore Islam if that's what he wanted to do.
GJELTENThere was a mosque nearby where they lived and he sort of fell in with a group of other young Muslim immigrants there. And he said to me several times, he doesn't think he would have had that support to sort of explore his identity back in Libya, where people are -- and in other countries, where people are channeled into certain destinies.
REHMTom Gjelten, his new book, "A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, it's so interesting because yesterday on "Fresh Air," with Terry Gross, there was a conversation with an author about the rise of al-Qaida and ISIS. And there was a story of a young man who came to this country who found himself a mosque nearby, ultimately wanted to turn against this country as a result of his experiences. And yet, here, you write about someone who becomes a devout Muslim, but at the same time appreciates the freedom that this country offers.
GJELTENWell, you know, there's certainly been a lot written about what are the factors that drive young men, in particular, to radicalized -- radical views. And I think that one of the common threads -- this is not my specialty -- but one of the threads that we have seen is some feeling of alienation, of sort of marginalization in society. Sometimes it's personal. Sometimes it has to do with their own family situation. Many of those young men have been in trouble previously. So I think there are some other factors.
GJELTENIt's not simply the fact that they are Muslim and happened to go to a mosque. Because, as I say, many young men find, in Islam -- and I'm limiting it to men because men and women are very much separated in Islam -- but many young men find solace and guidance and inspiration in their mosques. And I think that's important to keep in mind.
REHMHow does the story of the Korean family you chose differ from that of the Muslim family?
GJELTENWell, the Korean family -- and I focus on a couple, who got married sort of part way through my book. I begin with sort of their separate stories back in Korea and then follow them as they meet each other and get married. It's Mark Kim (sp?) and his wife, Alex Xiong Kim (sp?) . Both of them had very dramatic stories back in Korea, the circumstances that drove them to leave Korea and come to the United States. I thought, in each of these cases, but particularly in their case, I thought it was important to sort of under -- to highlight, what were the conditions that drove their families to leave? And for both of them, it was very difficult.
GJELTENThey, pretty clearly, did come as direct beneficiaries of this immigration reform. Alex's parents took work in a chicken processing plant in southern Maryland. It was a kind of a job that was open specifically for immigrants because nobody else wanted to do them. It's terrible work. It's very low pay. It's dangerous work. And their parents came and, you know, their story was one of living essentially in a dormitory and getting by -- they did all their shopping at the Family Dollar store. And they saved...
GJELTEN...every cent they could. And they sent Alex not only to college but on to law school.
GJELTENAnd similarly, Mark Kim, her husband, came to this country, actually started out in California and met Jesse Jackson in -- when he was an intern at the Democratic National Committee, and became a big advocate of the idea of building bridges between minority and immigrant groups, believed in the idea of the Rainbow Coalition. So one of the reasons that I wanted to focus on Mark is because he went on to a political career. He's now a delegate to the Virginia General Assembly. And there are -- this immigration phenomenon has political implications and he explains those.
REHMWhat a story. Short break here. Your calls, your comments when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Tom Gjelten is with me. You know him as a frequent guest host on this program. He's also NPR correspondent religion and belief. So he'll certainly be reporting on the pope's visit next week. He is also an author of several books. His latest, "A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story."
REHMTom, I was telling you during the break, I grew up in a nation -- in a neighborhood of immigrants. The question -- I mean, we all got along. Everybody played together, ate together, whatever. It didn't always affect communities in the same way.
GJELTENThat's right, Diane, and, you know, one of the things I have tried to do in this book is tell the story of the immigration of immigrants in a particular context. And I chose a county in northern Virginia because I wanted to explore how this immigrant influx actually affected the entire community in which it took place and what were the relations between the immigrant groups themselves, the relations between the people who were coming in, the newcomers and the old-timers, in a sense. So I wanted -- I really much have sort of written this in a little bit more of a literary way, kind of placing it in a real place, a real community. And Fairfax County is just a dramatic place to look at the effects of immigration. In 1960, Fairfax County was 90 percent white, about 10 percent African-American and, like, 0.1 percent foreign born.
GJELTENNow it -- close to a third of the residents of Fairfax County were born outside the country. So you've seen a really major transformation of this county. It's also grown tremendously in population. It was, in 1960, a segregated county. Not only were the schools segregated, but the neighborhoods were segregated. So you had all-black neighborhoods. So you -- the county went through a very traumatic experience of desegregation both in terms of their neighborhoods and their schools.
GJELTENAnd no sooner had they gotten through that or almost gotten through that that you had this huge immigrant influx coming in. And that produced a whole new set of tensions and conflicts not only between the newcomers and the white population but between the African-American population that had so recently achieved some level of equity in their community suddenly being forced to share the resources of the county, their schools, with these immigrants.
GJELTENSo this was -- this is not just a story of individuals. It's not just a story of families. It's a story of the entire community and what kind of challenges it went through. Now what -- going back to what you said in the beginning, one of the things that's really interesting about this particular wave of immigrants is because they came one by one and were attracted to the particular family members, it wasn't an en mass movement.
GJELTENSo you did not see the establishment of enclaves, which, you know, in previous generations you saw Chinatown, you saw Little Italies and so forth. That has not been the pattern in the last 50 years. Immigrants have been much more dispersed. They are drawn often to suburbs. They're attracted by good schools. They're attracted by security. And so you've seen a phenomenon where immigrants are mixed up among themselves. Fairfax County is a very diverse county.
REHMHere's an email from Nat in Louisville. He says, what role is aging playing in rates of immigration from various nations into this country, and what are the implications for the future?
GJELTENThat's a very astute question. Actually I explored this in a very narrow way, Diane, in a story I did on the future of the Catholic Church in the United States a couple of weeks ago. Immigrants or the children of immigrants now make up 40 percent of the Catholic congregations in the country, and what's significant about that is that the immigrant members of the Catholic, these Catholic parishes are much younger than the older members.
GJELTENSo the immigrant population in general is younger than the native white population. So they are -- immigrants and their children are very much the future in several communities.
REHMAnd yet there is continuing to be this concern about jobs, who's getting them, how they're being done and whether there is a kind of bias against those who are immigrants or against those who are natives.
GJELTENYou know, I tried to explore this in a fair way, Diane, in my book, and I don't think it's -- it's deniable that within certain sectors of the economy, immigrants do take jobs away from native workers, much more at the lower end of the skill and education spectrum, where you have immigrants coming in who are willing to work for relatively low wages and maybe don't have a lot of education.
GJELTENThere is some real serious competition there. I think that if you look at the economy in sort of more macro terms, a lot of economists will tell you that immigration has a net positive effect on the economy in terms of the jobs that are created and the diversification of the economy and so forth. But, you know, it's -- you have to, you have to be honest about what this phenomenon means from an economic point of view.
REHMLet's go to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Etta, you're on the air.
ETTAThank you very much for putting me on the air.
ETTAI want to raise a question about the current immigration crisis and the fact that I know this isn't quite what he's talking about, but it's important, most of the people who are escaping, say, Syria, are the more educated and wealthier people because they have the money to buy their way. As dangerous as the trip is, at least they can get on the boat. And I'm wondering if they all come and settle here if eventually Syria stops being under the rule of ISIS and Assad and all those people, who will help rebuild Syria, or will it just become another poor country because all the people with the education and leadership potential and scientific knowledge have settled down here?
GJELTENWell, you know, I think that a critical question is how long this civil war in Syria continues. I mean, you know, I think back to Cuba, which is a country I know pretty well, and a lot of the people who left Cuba in the early 1960s were also professional and middle-class and upper-class. And at the time, they all swore that they were going to go back and rebuild Cuba.
GJELTENCuba didn't change for 50 years, and now those people are all totally settled here, and it's sort of inconceivable that they go back. I think that if the situation in Syria were to be resolved, you know, in a shorter term that you could very well see a resettlement. I mean, you know very well, Diane, people don't like to leave their homelands. I mean, people are attached to their homelands, and they identify with the cultures from which they're coming.
GJELTENAnd, you know, it's not like they're just jumping to emigrate. They're force to emigrate. And as long -- if they have an opportunity to return and rebuild their countries, I think generally immigrants are willing to do that.
REHMTo Had in Washington, D.C., you're on the air.
HADHello, and thank you for letting me be on the air.
HADI just wanted to comment. With the current candidate that's leading for Republican Party, Donald Trump, my concern is, and I bring this up as a question and a comment, the Mexican Repatriation Act. And it seems that he's asking for that again and not only for Mexicans for a lot of people. If you could please comment on the Mexican Repatriation Act.
GJELTENWell, actually I'm not familiar with the Mexican Repatriation Act. I certainly am familiar with the context of that legislation and the idea that Mexicans should be sent back to their country, particularly those who are found to have committed crimes here or are here illegally. You know, the -- there's a lot of practical difficulties to deal with in pursuing that approach, but again, I'm -- I really have tried to avoid the whole discussion of what to do about people who have come here outside the law. That's really a separate discussion.
GJELTENI'm much more interested in the integration of immigrants in American society, not the repatriation of immigrants.
REHMHere's a fascinating email from Melissa, who says, my grandfather came here from Rashaya, which is now Lebanon, the same as your father. One kind of odd thing, in the 1920 census, my Lebanese grandfather was listed as white. His cousin, also Lebanese, was listed as Japanese by the same census taker, and my husband's Lebanese grandfather and great uncle were listed as mulatto. Can you talk about this?
GJELTENNo, I really can't.
GJELTENThat's really remarkable because I thought that when censuses were taken, they were taken on a family-by-family basis. You know, you apparently had two different census officers interviewing siblings and coming to different conclusions about their ancestry. But the one thing that's important to remember is that these designations had implications. They had important implications.
GJELTENI mean, if you were listed as Japanese, that really limited your possibilities in this country.
REHMNow what about the patterns of settlement that we see now as compared back in the '60s?
GJELTENWell, as I mentioned before, you had much more of an enclave phenomenon back in the '60s. Nowadays with immigrants sort of settling on a one-by-one or family-by-family basis, they tend to choose where they want to settle more deliberately. They're interested in particular things, schools, transportation, et cetera. And as a result of that, you don't have that enclave phenomenon like you used to.
GJELTENIn Fairfax County, Virginia, which is what I write about, there is a place called Koreatown, but the -- but the biggest population, biggest ethnic group in Koreatown is Hispanic. So you just don't see -- there was actually an interesting survey done in Fairfax County that measured the diversity of the county, and the diversity was measured by the likelihood that two people taken at random from a neighborhood would be of different ethnic groups, and it was the highest of anywhere in this whole metropolitan area.
GJELTENThis is a place where people are really interspersed. I write in this book about three young men who went to high school together at Fairfax High school, a boy from Bolivia, one of the families that I profile is Bolivian, a boy from Pakistan and a boy from Korea. And they were sort of thrust together, and there were -- and they were going to high school in a high school where there are many immigrants, and they found that they had so much in common.
GJELTENThey all came here at about the age of nine or 10. They had really difficult times. They had strong families. They had a lot to overcome. And they became very close friends, closer than they were with white, native Americans, native-born Americans, and so those immigrants find they have bonds in common even though they're from very different backgrounds personally.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Tom Gjelten, I'm so interested that you are turning to the coverage of religion in this country after your long years in both defense and national security. What did the act do to do the religious makeup of this country?
GJELTENI think that what -- the significance of this act is that it forced America, really for the first time, to deal with the idea that it is not going to be a white, Anglo-Saxon, Judeo-Christian nation exclusively. I think, you know, George Washington, way back in 1783, said the bosom of America is open to accept not only the respectable and opulent stranger but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions. That was in 1783.
GJELTENBut it was an empty promise, Diane. It was an empty promise because really for the next 200 years or close to 200 years, we really did see ourselves as a white, European, Judeo-Christian nation. And now with the influx of people from Asia, from the Middle East, from Muslim countries, from African countries, you know, we are finally sort of discovering what does it mean to be an exceptional nation and a nation that is defined not by religion, not by race, not by nationality but by adherence to a creed, a set of ideas that the American idea is all about.
GJELTENAnd, you know, we've preached about that for many, many years, but it's really only been in the last 50 years that we have begun to experiment with what that actually means.
REHMAnd there is still debate as to whether the change in immigration laws, the influx of immigrants has made us a stronger nation or a weaker nation.
GJELTENYou know, it's -- as you well know, I covered the war in the former Yugoslavia, and I know the reality of inter-ethnic conflict and how people, the slightest differences can become exaggerated under conditions of stress and really lead to a fragmentation of society. And that is a potential which I don't think that we can underestimate. I mean, there are, particularly as resources are strained, and people are competing with each other, the danger that religious and ethnic differences can flair up and set people against each other is very real.
GJELTENAnd I think that with the changes in our population over the last 50 years, the prospect of that kind of conflict is something that we can't rule out or that we can't underestimate. On the other hand, you know, and I go back to the example of those three boys from very different backgrounds. To the extent that Americans can sort of discover bonds between each other and find -- focus on what they have in common as opposed to what separates them, that does make for a stronger country. It makes for a more resilient country, it makes for a country that can deal with stress more successfully, and it has, I think, a stronger sense of itself that's based on ideas and not some narrow notion of race or blood.
REHMBut it also means you've got to have good leadership at the top talking exactly about that.
GJELTENAnd, you know, one of the interesting things, Diane, is how different leaders -- different people talk when they're in campaign mode versus in governing mode. I mean, you know, you see right now with Republican candidates seeming to outdo each other with, you know, comments about immigration. But take somebody like George W. Bush, who was a very conservative president and in the aftermath of 9/11 was really exemplary in the way that he reached out to Muslim communities. And it's because leaders know they have to lead the whole country.
REHMTom Gjelten, correspondent for NPR covering religion and belief. His new book, "A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story." Congratulations, Tom.
GJELTENThank you so much, Diane, great to see you.
REHMAnd thank you. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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