An incisive look at immigration, assimilation, and national identity.
Award-winning journalist and NPR correspondent Gjelten (Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, 2008, etc.) probes the immigrant experience after the 1965 Immigrant and Nationality Act, passed under Lyndon Johnson’s administration. This dramatic reform did away with quotas that privileged European ancestry; gave preference to spouses, minor children, and parents of immigrants who became citizens; and allocated 165,000 slots for others, half for those with “exceptional skills or education deemed ‘especially advantageous’ to the United States.” Although many lawmakers maintained that the act would not substantially change the country’s identity, some political scientists expressed consternation about assimilation: would immigrants comprise a permanent underclass—or worse, a threat—if they did not adopt what Samuel Huntington called “America’s Anglo-Protestant culture and political values?” As Seymour Martin Lipset put it, “becoming American was…an ideological act.” Now, 50 years after the act’s passage, Gjelten focuses on Fairfax, Virginia, a county that by 2010 had undergone “stunning demographic transformation.” In 1980, 9 percent of residents were foreign-born; by 2000, immigrants populated 40 percent of one unit of the county and 25 percent overall. Official publications were translated into six languages, hardly representing the more than 100 languages spoken in Fairfax. Based on interviews, Gjelten portrays in rich detail five immigrant families from Korea, Libya, and Bolivia, revealing the economic, social, political, and personal challenges for first- and second-generation family members. He examines schools’ responses to changing populations, the Muslims’ struggles as they met with ostracism after 9/11, new immigrants’ relationships with African-Americans, backlash incited by illegal immigration, and recent calls for new curbs. In a book reflecting Gjelten’s many years reporting overseas, he concludes that immigration has neither diluted national identity nor led to cultural separatism but, he optimistically sees, has enriched the nation, creating a new sense of “we.”
A timely, well-informed entry into a national debate.