I have often complained that one of the failures of American history class as I experienced it in high school* was that everything after the civil war was taught as a series of legislation punctuated by two world wars. The world wars were taught as story, and subsequently stuck with me . But the history of legislation was essentially a list: a name, a date, a paragraph about what the law in question accomplished. Here’s what stuck: anti-trust legislation, labor rights legislation, and, inexplicably, the Taft-Harley Act (the name, not the content).**
It turns out that the history of legislation can be pretty thrilling in the right hands.
One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965 began as an attempt by journalist and second-generation American Jia Lynn Yang to understand the law that allowed her parents to come to the United States, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The result is a gripping account of forty years of Congressional wrangling over immigration law in the United States.
Yang successfully argues that the idea of the United States as a nation of immigrants is a relatively new one—and demonstrates that laws controlling immigration are even more recent. The book centers on the passage of three major immigration laws—in 1924, 1952 and 1965—and the competing ideas about ethnicity, race and the nature of the United States as an entity that shaped those laws.
Yang never loses sight of the fact that laws are passed by people. She introduces us to the often colorful and sometimes awful politicians and activists who lobbied for and against changes in immigration policy, clearly evoking each man’s character as well as describing his political career. She outlines ugly relationships between immigration laws and the eugenics movement, isolationism, anti-Communist rhetoric, McCarthyism, anti-Semitism, and calls to keep the United States true to its “Northern European roots.”
Yang ends where she began, with the impact of the 1965 bill, which opened the door to non-white immigration, closed the border with Mexico for the first time and changed the United States in ways that its promoters had never anticipated.
One Mighty and Irresistible Tide is an important and sometimes surprising history of American immigration policy and the people who made it.
*I realize that this is not a universal experience. It wasn’t even my universal experience. My world history teacher did an excellent job of capturing my imagination despite the challenges inherent in the concept. Fabulous high school history teachers exist. My hats off to you all.
**I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up: formally known as the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, it restricted the power and actions of labor unions. The 80th Congress passed it over President Truman’s veto.
The guts of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.