It’s been a half century since John F. Kennedy declared this “a nation of immigrants,” since his successor Lyndon Johnson threw open the doors to a broad parade of people from all over the world with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.
That bill did away with a hundred-year history of ‘national origins’ exclusions — a long, legal attempt to keep American society mostly white and European. But it did not do away with a twisted feature of the American identity. This “nation of immigrants” has the homegrown double-standard of a nation of settlers, says our guest Aziz Rana, historian of The Two Faces of American Freedom. We have built exclusivity, and racial and nativist preference, into our idea of what’s American — even if we don’t recognize it.
First it was Protestants in, Catholics out; then it became white men in, people of color out. The first “illegal immigrants” weren’t Mexican, who were once allowed to pass seamlessly into the United States — they were Chinese first, then Jewish. Even LBJ’s liberal coup ended up cutting the legal limit for Latin American immigration by more than 90%.
The tide seemed to have turned: more people have left the U.S. for Mexico since 2009 than have entered the country. Pollsters believed that immigration wouldn’t be a big issue for voters in the 2016 election. They weren’t counting on Donald Trump whipping up a whirlwind of old-fashioned anxiety and anger at newcomers and outsiders, real and imaginary.
So as the nation of immigrants grows bigger, browner and in many ways more inclusive, the part of it that obsesses over the real America never quite goes away.
Then we’ll close out the show with a look at the special case of Mexico. Our guests Helen Marrow and Claudio Lomnitz look sympathetically at our younger, poorer neighbor to the south: at its people, who work hard, assimilate well, and seem sometimes to be victims of their own success in the United States, and at its culture — saturated with death, precariousness, and new kinds of freedom unknown north of the border.