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“Making Americans: Immigration, Race and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy” by Desmond King (Harvard University Press; 292 pages; $45) Our conception of ourselves as Americans is rooted in paradox. We have, since the Founders, and from Emerson through Saul Bellow, celebrated a common American identity based on rugged if not radical individualism. We are, we say, self-reliant and plainspoken, unaffected and busy. We judge people by their character and accomplishments, not by their rank or refinement. We mind our own business. We celebrate, as every corporate human relations department now tells us, our diversity. Yet, is there not another sort of national identity? A set of common characteristics, stereotypes even — a culture? And if there is, what ought a nation of immigrants do to guard or foster that identity? In the 1920s, our nation engaged in an extraordinary debate about these issues. The forum was immigration policy. Until then, immigration to the United States was essentially unrestricted, massive, and magnificent. It created a nation attractive and cohesive enough that some feared that continuing to accept all comers would undo what had been accomplished. Desmond King, a professor of politics at Oxford University, explores these debates and the issues they illuminate in “Making Americans.” He has no patience for the assimilationist and racist premises that underlie much of what was said at the time, but he is alert to the impossibility of reconciling any palpable national identity with a true commitment to diversity. Or at least he credits the view that “some sort of ‘national political identity’ has to be retained for political durability and functioning.” Once you accept this premise, though, he concedes that it runs straight into the problem identified by Isaiah Berlin: “There are key values in liberal democracies, such as liberty, justice, or equality, that inherently clash and that can never entirely be reconciled.” King’s own views are a little hard to tease out of his convoluted sentences. His writing is fuzzy, airy, and academic, and he mostly makes his points through disdainful irony and implication. He has a good eye for forceful writing but no personal aptitude, and the occasional direct or colorful statement in “Making Americans” is apt to be surrounded by quotation marks. In his typical loose and impressionistic fashion, King introduces us to the United States of 1920. It was surprisingly homogenous. The great immigration of the nineteenth century had added mostly Irish Catholics and German Protestants to the substantial English stock (and to the descendants of African slaves). Thus, Northwest Europeans dominated the debate. They took some essentials for granted: The nation was white and English-speaking. (Only whites had been allowed to naturalize since the Naturalization Act of 1790; knowledge of English was added as a naturalization requirement in 1906.) The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 followed the immigration of about 250,000 Chinese, whose manual labor at low wages came to be resented by poor whites. By the end of the nineteenth century, idiots, lunatics, paupers, and convicts were also excluded. More forbidden categories were added in the next few years: anarchists, epileptics, beggars, tuberculosis sufferers. In 1902 Woodrow Wilson, then a political scientist at Princeton, mentioned the “uneasiness” he felt at the thought that “the sturdy stocks of the north of Europe” were being overtaken by “men of the lowest ranks from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland.” A literacy requirement was added in 1917. This was itself a proxy aimed at excluding southern and eastern Europeans. In the decade ending in 1909, German, Scandinavian, English, and Irish immigrants had illiteracy rates no higher than 5 percent. Italians, Jews, Poles, and Slovaks had illiteracy rates ranging between 25 and 50 percent. In an irony that King fails to note, another argument in favor of immigration restrictions was the supposed radicalism of the new immigrants. This was said to be demonstrable by reference to the truly impressive numbers of foreign-language radical newspapers available in the United States. In 1922, for instance, there were 27 such newspapers published in Italian, 23 in Hungarian, 16 in Romanian, and 15 in Yiddish. It is bad enough that a nation fundamentally committed to the free exchange of ideas should have ever thought it proper to exclude people on the basis of their political views. It is really something, though, to argue simultaneously that certain groups were both largely illiterate and yet read the wrong newspapers. At issue in the 1920s was whether additional restrictions, based on ethnic and eugenic grounds, should also be required. Much of the debate was based on a 42-volume study prepared at the behest of Congress by a commission headed by William P. Dillingham. This study, the work that went into it, and the debates which surrounded it, are at the heart of “Making Americans.” The Dillingham Commission spent $1 million, analyzed original information on 3.2 million people, and was staffed by the best and brightest of its day. It worked diligently but, as King points out, within a paradigm that seems quite foreign to us today. The Dillingham Commission accepted Wilson’s assessment that the newer immigration compared unfavorably to that which had come from “the most progressive sections of Europe.” These immigrants had come to stay and assimilated quickly, certainly by the second generation. Newer immigrants, “from the less progressive and advanced countries of Europe,” often consisted of unskilled laboring men who came temporarily and lived in unassimilated ethnic communities. “The old immigration came to be part of the country,” the commission concluded, “while the new, in large measure, comes with the intention of profiting, in a pecuniary way, by the superior advantages of the new world and then returning to the old country.” The arguments turned uglier, more racist, and less supported as they moved from economic motive to supposed group characteristics. In general, “the new immigration,” the commission declared, “as a class is far less intelligent than the old.” Particular groups presented particular problems. Italian immigrants, for instance, were said not only to include “many individuals belonging to the criminal classes, particularly of Southern Italy and Sicily,” but also to be racially prone to crime. “Certain kinds of criminality” — including “crimes of personal violence, robbery, blackmail, and extortion” — “are inherent in the Italian race.” As if this were not enough, eugenics played a significant, though not decisive, role in the debates, which were otherwise centered on the economic and ethnic arguments advanced for excluding or limiting immigration from certain countries. The Dillingham Commission heard from some “experts” who urged both group and individual restrictions based on biology and genetics. Eugenicists worried about “racial degeneracy” that would follow intermarriage between the newer and older immigrants. This pseudo-scientific babble can make for entertaining reading today. The carefully drawn distinctions between idiots, imbeciles, and morons — all of whom were said to be undesirable as immigrants, though not for the same reasons — would not be out of place in a Dilbert cartoon. One “scientist” opined that “the moron is really a greater menace to our civilization than the idiot.” And who could disagree? The commission’s work concluded with a recommendation that immigration be restricted proportionally by national origin based on the 1920 census of white Americans. This was a radical step, a rejection of a fundamental premise of the American promise. There was significant opposition to the commission’s recommendations both at the time and later. Business interests and organizations representing Americans with connections to southern and eastern Europe led the fight. The recommendations were enacted in 1924 but did not take effect until 1929, after a series of delays prompted by that opposition. The restrictions lasted into the Johnson administration. The dismantling of the national origins scheme produced some heroes. President Truman, in vetoing an extension of the concept, said the “basis for this quota system was false and unworthy in 1924. It is incredible to me that, in this year of 1952, we should be enacting into law such a slur on the patriotism, the capacity and the decency of a large part of our citizenry.” The veto was overwhelmingly overridden. In the end, the quota system never worked particularly well. Two-thirds of the quota was allocated to Britain, Ireland, and Germany, but many spots went unclaimed. In 1964, more than half of Britain’s quota was unused. Then again, Ireland, with a population in 1963 of about 3 million, had a larger quota than all of Asia, with a population of 1.5 billion. At the height of the Cold War, various administrative regulations and special legislative enactments also poked holes in the quota system and honored the nation’s historic commitment to political asylum. My own parents were admitted into the United States after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution under such a statute. When the quota system was finally overturned in 1965, it was replaced in part by family-based preferences. Though much more palatable on humanitarian grounds, such preferences do tend to result in something like what the quota system set out to do. They extend a preference to those groups already here. Even as we must acknowledge that the entire enterprise was reprehensible, “Making Americans” also presents, just under its surface, the question of whether any efforts toward national cohesiveness — toward assimilation — can be legitimate. Can we require a common language, a shared historical narrative, a collective understanding of how we have chosen to govern ourselves, the Pledge of Allegiance? These are profound and difficult questions, and the book cannot be faulted for failing to provide answers. “Making Americans” is rich in detail, but it does not work hard enough to lay out the basic framework. As valuable and important as the book is, it fails as history. A timeline of what happened when is presented only as an appendix, and the mechanics of the various statutes are never fully presented. King’s familiarity with American law is unsure. He has Thurgood Marshall dissenting in the Bakke case, for instance, when in fact Marshall concurred in the aspect of the judgment that allowed race to be taken into account as a factor in university admissions. The book could have used a theoretical superstructure, too. If one accepts that unlimited immigration is not an option and also that the Dillingham Commission’s conclusions were an illegitimate limiting principle, one is left with this question: How, then, do we decide who gets in? Aside from the briefest of references to economic and asylum rationales, King is unhelpful. He supports inclusiveness and diversity, to be sure, but he offers no concrete views of his own or even a survey of other approaches. To his credit, King never loses sight of the absence of any discussion of the African American experience in the immigration debates. He is repetitive and relentless in pointing out this absence. He draws some valuable connections between the Johnson administration’s civil rights legislation and the concurrent immigration reform. The United States now accepts about 800,000 immigrants annually. People disagree about whether that is the right number and about whether we are using the right criteria. But the terms of the debate have shifted from the racist framework that King describes to one concerned with the global economics of labor, with uniting families, and with political asylum. There is no consensus in this new debate, but it is informed by a concern for individual circumstances and economics, not by supposed group characteristics. It is informed, to put it differently, by a worthy conception of ourselves. Adam Liptak is senior counsel in the legal department of The New York Times Company. His essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Observer, and other publications.

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