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American Voices: Jon Meacham

This week’s “American Voices” essay is from Jon Meacham, a contributing editor at Time magazine.

In a year of tumult — of Selma, of Medicare, of growing violence in Vietnam — it is a largely forgotten moment. But it shouldn’t be. On Sunday, Oct. 3, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson came to New York harbor to sign the landmark immigration and nationality act, a bill that dramatically illustrates our national dependence on, and debt to, those who travel here from elsewhere in the world. “Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers,” Johnson said on that autumn Sunday. “From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide.”

Johnson’s words are worth remembering as we debate which highly skilled workers to allow into the United States — or, more precisely, which highly skilled workers educated here we should try to keep. We are, of course, a nation of immigrants. And it’s important to recall that we’ve always grown stronger the more widely we’ve opened our arms. Not everyone, naturally, has agreed with that. Immigration boomed at the end of the 19th century. Waves came from Italy, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, which included parts of Poland.  In 1896, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge proposed a literacy test to restrict the influx of “Italians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, and Asiatics.” Lodge liked “English-speaking [immigrants] … Germans, Scandinavians, and French.”

The 1965 bill abolished national quotas and allowed naturalized citizens to send for relatives. If you shut doors, you may think you’re securing yourself, but in fact you’re locking yourself in, foreclosing possibilities and limiting growth. We should be smart and liberal — in the 19th century sense of the term liberal, meaning free — with the right kinds of visas for much-needed high-tech workers. That’s the American way, and while the American way surely isn’t always the right one, in this case it is. In 1965, Johnson mentioned the “joyous sound of long-ago voices” on Ellis Island. We have it in our power to hear new voices right now, and we should do all we can to make room for them in a country that’s made room for all of us.