Jack Cross’s column criticizing the Immigration and Nationality Act was terribly racist (“1965 immigration law has backfired on US,” The Daily News, July 2). Cross admits that the previous national origins quotas virtually prohibited immigration from most of the world, and was “obviously a discriminatory system.”
But he refuses to acknowledge the centrality of white supremacy throughout our immigration history. He misrepresents the origins and passage of the 1965 law. And he blames the people of color who have migrated from “undesirable” countries for the mounting social and political problems in the United States.
As Mae Ngai and other historians have pointed out, this country had virtually open borders from the American Revolution through World War I — for white people. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalization to “any alien, being a free white person” who resided here for two years. It took the Civil War, a million deaths, and the 14th Amendment to extend citizenship to formerly enslaved African Americans, whose labor had generated much of the nation’s wealth.
The massive wave of immigration from the 1830s through the 1880s brought many millions of people from Ireland and Germany to the United States. These immigrants helped build canals, railroads and roads, engaged in other productive labor, and served in the armed forces. But national chauvinism and religious bigotry led many native-born people to mistreat and even violently attack their new neighbors.
Mine owners and railroad companies in need of cheap labor promoted the immigration of Chinese workers in the mid-19th century. These workers helped extract gold, silver, and coal from the earth and were instrumental in building the Transcontinental Railroad. Hundreds of them died in the process. But virulent racism among whites led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Another massive wave of immigration from the 1880s to the 1920s involved many millions of people from southern and eastern Europe, and hundreds of thousands of people from Japan. These workers contributed significantly to U.S. industrial and agricultural development, but anti-Semitism and prejudice against Italians, Greeks, Poles, Russians and the Japanese was widespread. New federal laws in 1917, 1921, and 1924 limited future immigration from these countries.
Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 to end the blatant racism against immigrants who didn’t come from northwestern Europe. By this time, a growing number of Americans supported equal treatment for all people, regardless of race or nationality. The new law was a major progressive advance, and Cross is wrong to focus on President Lyndon Johnson’s politicking instead of this important repudiation of racism.
The third great wave of immigration since 1965 has certainly changed the face of our country by bringing many millions of people from Latin America, Asia, and Africa to our country. But this isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean the 1965 law “backfired.” Most Americans don’t think immigrants of color are “undesirable” or responsible for problems in the economy, schools or politics. That is Cross’ racism talking.