Photo by Lorin Klaris.
Jia Lynn Yang, national editor at the New York Times, is the winner of the 11th annual Zócalo Book Prize for her debut book, One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965, a clear-eyed look at how America’s modern immigration policy came to be.
Pushing back against the mythology that America has always been a nation of immigrants, One Mighty and Irresistible Tide centers on the four-decade period between the passage of the Immigration Law of 1924, which created a permanent race-based quota system, and the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which inaugurated a new era of mass migration in the U.S., unintentionally transforming the ethnic and racial makeup of the country in the process. By breaking down the history of these policy shifts, Yang’s book sheds light on why it has always been politics, not destiny, that decides who is able to come to this country.
The Zócalo Book Prize is awarded annually to the nonfiction book that most enhances our understanding of community and the forces that strengthen or undermine human connectedness and social cohesion.
What struck our judges about Yang was her ability to explore immigration policy in a critical yet accessible way. “Jia Lynn Yang is an excellent narrator,” wrote one of our judges, “with a gift for extracting the interesting actors in this story and building biographical frames that take readers into the intricacies of legislative fights without becoming lost in the details.”
Yang will deliver a lecture on her book and accept the prize, which includes a $10,000 award, during a live event streaming on Zócalo’s YouTube channel on May 20 at 5 p.m. PDT. Angelica Esquivel, winner of the 10th annual Zócalo Poetry Prize, will deliver a public reading of her poem “La Mujer” prior to the lecture.
Yang, whose own family came to the United States from Taiwan and China thanks to the 1965 law, spoke to Zócalo associate editor Jackie Mansky about why understanding the history of our nation’s immigration policies crystalizes what’s at stake for the future of the American republic.
The language “one mighty and irresistible tide” comes from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s remarks upon signing the historic Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It also can be seen as a metaphor for immigration. What did you want to convey with the title?
It is almost a natural metaphor—the tides going in and out, and what LBJ is saying is that it can’t be stopped. Migration is not a thing you can stop. As much as governments try to create borders, freedom of movement is a fundamental aspect of being human.
Just over 100 years ago, we had completely open borders in this country. There were certainly some restrictions—famously, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting Chinese laborers—but there were no numerical limits, including at the U.S.-Mexico border.
It’s hard to unwind how much has been layered on our system today; there’s this paper, there’s that paper, there’s this category of visa, there’s that. But there’s something elemental about immigration when you strip those things away. It used to be: people just came. It ebbs and flows, but that urge to be here cannot be stopped.
The history you focus on, how race-based quotas established in 1924 came to be overhauled in the 1960s, speaks to this idea that the tide can’t be stopped. At the same time, you write that opponents of ethnic pluralism dismiss today’s conditions as a “demographic aberration.” Do you think this metaphor of the tide holds up?
I’m of two minds. There’s something very powerful about the idea of the tide. At the same time, immigration can be stopped. You can implement laws that stop it. If you look at the Trump years, immigration diminished thanks to stricter border security and deportations, but also restrictions on legal immigration, and the visa system. Many fewer refugees were admitted.
People argue that the country is a nation of immigrants—that it’s just inherent in our identity and core values. The argument is forceful. But at the same time, history shows that we, more often than not, don’t want [more immigration].
What’s alarming to me about the “aberration” idea is that the 1965 law quite clearly was never intended to create the multi-racial, multi-ethnic diversity we see today. But the world we find ourselves in now is the result of it.
It’s humbling. If you believe that [the increasingly diverse demographic makeup of the U.S. today] is “natural,” that it’s just who we are, then you don’t see the fight behind it—you think the tide will just bring it in, like the tide brought my family in. But history shows that it’s brute political force and argument and luck and circumstance that allow it to happen.
How has your understanding of Americanness changed or been challenged since starting this book?
I began the project thinking that immigration was natural, that my family’s presence here was natural. Learning the history of antagonism to it made me realize just how much of “Americanness” is up for grabs. There is this long fight over whether it is determined by your ethnicity and religion, or something else. And that conflict appears over and over and over again.
We are living it very deeply right now. There are people who feel the country has lost its moorings—that it’s changed too much, too quickly. A new study of the January 6th rioters draws a connection: Many who were arrested came from parts of the country where the percentage of white residents has dropped dramatically in recent years. This idea of the country’s identity—to what degree there is a connection between your race and Americanness—is not settled at all.
One of the most common things Asian Americans are told is, “You don’t belong here, go back home, go back to your country.” Explicit in that is that you are not American.
When we speak about America as a country of immigrants, the melting pot remains one of the most enduring terms used, despite the critiques around it. What was the most useful vocabulary that you encountered during your research?
[The American Jewish philosopher] Horace Kallen was really into this metaphor of a symphony. You have many different instruments, and they all have different sounds, different timbres. They play together to create a whole, but each brings something to the orchestra that’s distinct. You get away from this notion of everyone having to flatten into one melting pot—each person melting down so much that there isn’t anything left.
I thought the symphony analogy was interesting. It says that this thing is beautiful because it is made out of all these differences.
How could we better teach the history of immigration in classrooms today?
The way immigration is discussed is so bloodless. It’s always about policies. I wish immigration was taught more in a personal way, for everyone to be able to explain the law that allowed their family to be here. Each of us could stand to explore why were we allowed to come here, versus others who were not.
Once you tie immigration to a personal story, it really comes alive. It forces you to realize the ways in which you are not so different from other people who tried to come here. You begin to see the ways in which judgments about who is allowed to enter can feel arbitrary.
You are careful to humanize each of the historical figures you mention in the book. Was that a conscious move to make immigration policy more personal?
For me, a great story needs people in it that you relate to. It felt important to me to show that people who were anti-immigrant were human beings too. Then it’s not so easy to dismiss some of their arguments.
It is a complete mistake to assume that because someone is foreign born or the children of immigrants, you know how they feel about immigration. Some of the people in the book were anti-immigration, but themselves came from immigrant families. I think they felt this particular protectiveness of Americanness, to not want to dilute the thing that they had embraced.
You have to understand people’s motivations—otherwise, you see them as just faceless and intolerant, as opposed to people who have their own complex reasons for arriving where they are.
This is your first book. After publishing it, you wrote “I thought only a certain type of person wrote a history book. Certainly not me.” What did you mean by that, and how you feel about it today?
There is a way that history can feel like it’s behind the glass case. That it’s about powerful people, and it’s to be read by people who want to know about powerful people.
When I was doing my research, I was often the only woman [in libraries]. I was often the youngest. I was certainly the only Asian American. Everyone should understand that anyone can walk into a presidential library archive—you don’t need to be an esteemed PhD researcher. In fact, one of the most moving moments of my research was at the Truman Library. A Korean War vet came in with his family, and the librarian was showing him all these powerful photos and papers from the archives. I thought history should always feel like that. It should always feel like you can walk in.
There is a deep connection between our political history and ourselves. It’s not a thing that’s behind a glass case. It is yours. It’s ours.