Credit: Suzette Brooks Masters

Can we make nationalism and immigration congruent in America again?

Suzette Brooks Masters


Lessons from two pivotal immigration moments of the 20th century

We find ourselves in another key inflection point in our nation’s immigration history. Trump has made immigration control a centerpiece of his presidency and a core narrative arc in his appeals to the public. He has branded his America-First nationalism as incompatible with generous immigration policies, parlaying fears about demographic and cultural change into fears of the “other.” And he has turbocharged the politics of division, pitting his supporters against newcomers or any other opportunistic targets in a zero sum narrative fight over identity, resources, jobs and social capital.

True to his campaign promises, Trump has created the most anti-immigrant policy environment since 1924, with a physical barrier at the southern border signaling our fortress mindset, religious bans, a virtual end to refugee resettlement and asylum, administrative slowdowns, “emergency” measures to halt most immigration in response to the coronavirus, and aggressive enforcement actions feeding a deportation pipeline. The aggregate effect of all these actions is to sharply limit the entry of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers and to create a constant climate of insecurity and precarity. And he has achieved all of this without Congress passing any legislation!

By comparison, nearly 100 years ago, Congress did shut the door to immigrants, and it did so decisively. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act drastically reduced the number of immigrants admitted to the U.S. from Eastern and Southern Europe, effectively banned immigration from Asia, added strict numerical quotas based on current populations residing in the U.S. (in order to preserve the extant racial and ethnic composition of the US), and established the Border Patrol. Its passage followed forty years of high levels of migration from Eastern and Southern Europe, people considered “other” then and who experienced significant discrimination upon their arrival. The 1924 Act must be seen as an effort to keep America homogeneous in the face of sizable demographic change, a way to “freeze” demographics and preserve white racial dominance. I believe a very similar phenomenon is taking place again today.

When America re-opened its doors to foreigners forty years later, in 1965, what factors made that possible? Jia Lynn Yang sought to answer that question in One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924–1965. In an interview in Smithsonian Magazine, she remarks on how easily the historic Hart-Celler Act of 1965 could have eluded us, that there was no inevitability to its passage.

She attributes the energy behind the bill to President Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s desire to honor his legacy, as well as to the profound cultural changes taking hold during the civil rights era. Like the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, a push for racial equality extended to the immigration arena. She argues that the additional impetus came from the Cold War. America needed to forge alliances against the Soviet Union and our restrictive immigration policies complicated those efforts.

The immigration system established by the 1965 Act is the cornerstone of our current immigration system. It puts in place a visa-based system and favors skills-based immigration as well as family reunification. What I didn’t realize is that the addition of the family reunification component was a nod to the nativists who saw it as a way to preserve the demographic profile of the nation. It was seen as maintaining the social order, not upending it. And despite the rhetoric about racial equality, the 1965 Act also put in place a numerical cap on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, in particular from neighboring countries like Mexico and others in Latin America, and from the Caribbean. So this bill touted as a progressive milestone was both responding to the progressive cultural zeitgeist and making compromises to anti-immigrant forces. And, the truth is, nobody expected it to usher in the large-scale demographic changes that it eventually did.

What was it about the cultural zeitgeist that changed people’s perceptions about immigrants? Yang believes it had to do with Americans’ evolving sense of national identity and self-definition, which became compatible with immigration. Nationalism and immigration became congruent. Perhaps that’s because the “melting pot” of the prior forty years had transformed the immigrant “others” into Americans in the public mind. Perhaps it was a response to new social norms and idealism about how to shape American society consistent with the moral imperative of the civil rights movement. Yang writes: “We often think of nationalism and immigration as opposing ideas and forces. The really interesting political turn in the ’50s is to bring immigrants into this idea of American nationalism. It’s not that immigrants make America less special. It’s that immigrants are what make America special. Whereas in the ’20s the argument was, “Keep America ‘American’ by keeping out immigrants.” [In the 1960s] it was, “If you’re not going to welcome immigrants, you’re not going to celebrate all these different waves of immigration, the Jews, the Italians, the Germans, you’re just being un-American. You don’t love this part of the American story.”

The current acrimonious debate over America’s growing diversity (that followed the passage of the 1965 Act), with resulting high levels of immigration of mostly people of color from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, is fundamentally about America’s reaction to profound changes to its self-definition and demographic composition. It’s a battle fundamentally about whether nationalism is still congruent with immigration. In 2016, voters chose Trump’s America First-ism, which means keep America as white as possible and immigrants of color out. Since 2017, congruence has become divergence.

This divergence is leading, as it did 100 years ago, to pitched cultural and ideological battles over who counts as American and who has earned the right to stay and thrive, over who is part of the “in group” and who isn’t, over who should be allowed in. How long will this divergence last and how can we fashion a new national identity that embraces immigration?

I explore this battlefield in Change is Hard to understand how supporters of immigrants and refugees can turn the tide without further deepening polarization and division around cultural flashpoint issues like immigration. Countering the impulse to “other,” vilify, dehumanize, and exclude marginalized others and immigrants hinges on our ability to assert our mutual interdependence and uncover our shared humanity as Americans. Research shows our leaders and key influencers have an outsize role to play in modeling how we can find common ground with those we are told to fear, and put forth a compelling and inclusive national identity.

With a divider-in-chief in office, this enterprise now falls to so many other leaders across civil society and faces strong headwinds. The national narrative that triumphs — one of zero-sum competition and racially-activated threat or one of profound inclusion and belonging for all — will determine our future course on immigration and so many other issues. Arundhati Roy urges us to usher in transformative change as we cross the pandemic portal into our new reality, by advancing a solidarity narrative that knits us together in an acknowledgement of shared fates and mutual interdependence. I believe that’s the way to make American national identity and immigration congruent again.

Suzette Brooks Masters is Senior Strategist at the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council.



Suzette Brooks Masters

Let’s reimagine + strengthen our pluralistic democracy, make it truly inclusive + ensure it leaves nobody behind. I want to imagine better futures ahead!