Reason Interviews

The New York Times' Jia Lynn Yang on the Ebb and Flow of Immigration 

From the founding up until 1882, U.S. immigration policy was quite open. In her new book, Yang details how that changed over time.


A deputy national editor at The New York Times, Jia Lynn Yang is the author of a timely new book, One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924–1965 (W.W. Norton & Co.). The book begins at a dark moment in American immigration policy, when a restrictive law ended a long period of relatively open borders and effectively stopped mass movement to the United States for the next 40 years. It tells the story of the decadeslong process that led the U.S. to begin accepting foreigners once again. Yet almost nobody involved in that fight foresaw the extent to which the 1965 law finally signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson would open the door to large numbers of new immigrants, including Yang's family.

Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Yang first in March and then again in May after the COVID-19 pandemic began to have a major effect on U.S. immigration policy. Among other things, it prompted President Donald Trump to temporarily halt legal migration and led to a delay in asylum hearings on the Mexican border.

Q: You have a personal connection to immigration, particularly the laws of the period that your book covers. What is it?

A: My family would not be here if not for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. When I began working on this whole project, I'd never heard of the law, never been taught it in high school or college. I had just been told—like, I think, a lot of American families—the gauzy story of how we ended up here at all. Basically, my family's from China. After the civil war and the Communists won in 1949, my grandparents left for Taiwan, like a lot of other refugees. My parents grew up there and then came to the U.S. in the '60s and '70s for college and grad school.

Q: Talk about American immigration policy from the beginning of the republic up through the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. 

A: Our immigration policy was quite open. We needed people to come and colonize this land. If you basically wanted to show up, we didn't have visas, there were no passports, there wasn't border control. If you got here—and this was true until really the 1920s—and you made it physically [through] the long, long journey, you could be here.

In 1882, the U.S. passed, for the first time, an immigration law restricting people coming in based on their ethnicity. This was fueled by a huge anti-Asian backlash against Chinese laborers in particular. From that point on, you can see that we are as a country slowly but surely adding more and more restrictions.

Q: What happened with immigration policy between 1925 and 1950?

A: Imagine the 1920s as being a very isolationist, very pro-American, nationalist time where we're literally closing off borders.

As we're fighting [World War II], it becomes clear that our immigration laws don't match our foreign policy. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned the naturalization of anyone who's Chinese, but during the war, the Chinese are allies, and it seems embarrassing and downright insulting to signal to our ally, "We don't actually think that you're up to snuff to be citizens." So we slowly crack the door open to Chinese immigration.

Q: How did President Ronald Reagan deal with immigration?

A: The last major, truly ambitious reworking of American immigration laws comes under Reagan, and he basically creates a path to citizenship for all these people. He creates amnesty.

I'd argue the next pass at this, under [President] Bill Clinton, is at least as transformative. In the moment it wasn't considered as ambitious as what Reagan did, but Clinton is the one who really creates this sort of perpetual state of illegal immigration crisis, because he both narrows the pathways to citizenship and increases the reasons to deport people.

Q: Will immigration policy change if a Democrat wins the White House, or are these forces that oscillate between expansive and restrictive immigration policy bigger than any one politician? 

A: I feel like [people in the Trump administration] know this history in a way that Democrats don't. They will talk about the 1920s and they'll talk about 1965. They understand that there's almost a dial that you can turn on American immigration. Sometimes [we] allow a lot of people in. Sometimes we don't. And they of course want to turn the dial back toward more restriction.

The Democrats—I'm hard-pressed to know what their plan is. They talk a lot about a nation of immigrants, and they celebrate this gauzy mythology, but unless they're advocating open borders, I'm not clear on what their preferences are for who comes in and who doesn't.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.

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  2. Hey nick,

    No real libertarian gives a flying fuck about anything anyone at the new York times has to say. It’s one of the most anti-free speach and toxic journalistic workplaces in America, as evidenced by many of its former writers fleeing for those ressons.

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    2. Everyone who doesn’t exactly agree with my politics is a MARXIST!

      This is about as deep as the “thinking” of many right-wing nut-jobs goes, these days!

    3. Spoken like a true conservative.

      1. Spoken like a true broken lefty.

        1. A while ago I broke my right thumb, and while it was in a cast I had to wipe my ass with my left hand. So I was in fact a broken lefty for a month. But it healed, so that’s no longer an issue.

  3. The Democrats—I’m hard-pressed to know what their plan is. They talk a lot about a nation of immigrants, and they celebrate this gauzy mythology, but unless they’re advocating open borders, I’m not clear on what their preferences are for who comes in and who doesn’t.
    Have you been in a cave for the past couple decades?

    1. Yeah, everyone knows the Democrats want to give anyone who does and end-zone dive across the border free healthcare.

      1. Wasn’t it Saint Reagan who signed the legislation that requires hospitals that take Medicaid to give free care to indigents?

        1. “Saint Reagan”


          1. You’re gonna tell me that he’s not revered among conservative circles in the same manner as a saint is to Catholics? With a straight face?

          2. You’re gonna tell me that he’s not revered among conservative circles in the same manner as a saint is to Catholics? With a straight face? C’mon! He was the Best Conservative Evah!

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  4. “The New York Times”

    Hid a holocauat then denied it.

    1. As superbly documented by Deborah Lipstadt.

    2. Holocauat… A cauterized cat cast before me as a hologram, perhaps? Holo? Is there any intelligence in there?

  5. It’s totally unacceptable that this country has gone through phases in which it deviated from open borders. I mean, how are billionaires like’s benefactor Charles Koch supposed to prosper without unlimited, unrestricted immigration?


  6. Sure Reagan was a huge open borders advocate! No. In reality he was promised a fix of immigration laws by Congress, who lied through their teeth once again. You remember that House run by democrats for 40 years from 1955 to 1995, until Americans had enough and kicked them to the curb. Sadly they are back and more rabid than ever.

    1. And that 1986immigration reform bill really worked great, didn’t it? In fact, the amnesty for illegals under the 1986 law worked so well, we should enact another one now. Every generation or two, we should give amnesty to all the illegals who came in since the last amnesty, while promising that *this* time, we’re going to get serious and really block illegal immigration.

  7. Hey Nick.. Long time, no see. While you were asleep there was a 4 year attempted coup of an elected President. You should wander down to the office and see if anyone there can pull their head out of their ass.

    1. Hey, Rob covered social media blocking the article about Hunter’s emails yesterday. That filled the anti-left quota for the quarter.

      1. And in the Roundup, ENB is making nothingburger casserole out of it.

        1. It’s not like it was censorship or anything. Only Congress can censor.

  8. After Trump offered the Democrats in Congress a reasonable legislative deal on immigration reform, the Democrats rejected it because they were far more interested in continuing to falsely accusing Trump of being a racist (which is also why the Dems refused to support Sen Tim Scott’s very reasonable police reform legislation.

    In sum, the Democrats and news media have been far more interested in continuing to falsely accusing Trump and other Republicans of being racist than actually resolve any of the problems Democrats (and their allied protesters and rioters who are destroying Democrat cities) claim must be resolved.

    1. Democrats in Congress have been deploying a similar strategy on Roe v Wade, in which they’ve falsely accused Republicans (and Supreme Court justices nominated by Republican Presidents) of planning to reverse Roe v Wade in the Supreme Court.

      And yet, those same Democrats have refused to enact federal legislation that would make Roe v Wade the law of the land when they had control (twice) of the White House, House and Senate over the past 28 years.

      Seems like Democrats are far more interested in keeping their coalition of so-called victims voting Democrat than achieving the policy goals they’ve been promising those folks in recent decades.

    2. Unfortunately this is a tendency of elected legislators now ‐ state, federal, probably other countries too. They want to keep the pot boiling rather than ever act on what they promise the voters. I don’t remember such having been the case 30 years ago; maybe I was just slow catching on, or maybe it’s an actual malign change. Could it even be an underlying change in the electorate, wherein they’d rather have something to gripe about than fix it?

    3. This is true and illegal immigration is the Left’s new slave labor. The ideology behind slavery didn’t die during the Civil War, it somehow remained alive and was able to be remarketed in new terms and with a broader appeal as well as population to apply it to once the Left achieved power: Communism.

  9. Up until the 1880s most immigrants to the US were people who were kicked out of the countries they came from, either by politics, religion, or starvation. Coming to the US was a huge leap into the dark. The trip in sailing vessels was long and perilous. The country was known to be unsettled, with poorly supported institutions, and the chance of losing all the immigrant had left was very real.
    Once the country had gotten relatively wealthy, people started to choose to emigrate here to become richer. Getting here became much easier, cheaper, safer, and faster.

    1. The difference is that they wanted to be Americans. They knew the cultural expectation was that they would learn and accept the ways of the U.S. If an American migrated and lived in, say, Italy or Mexico the expectation would be the same there.

      It doesn’t mean they should reject or no longer appreciate their culture of origin (I have friends who are Italian descent but love Iots of things about their parents native country), but too often I see Hispanics where I live wearing shirts saying “Hecho En Mexico” and even people driving vehicles flying the Mexican flag. Where’s their appreciation of the United States? Would they be happier in Mexico or their country of origin than here? I think not, but Hispanics wearing their Mexican, Guatemalan, etc. logos or symbols tells me they’re American in name only.


  11. 1870’s brought Irish and Germans who were recruited into the army, a job right off the boat, and joined up with Custer to get massacred. The old immigration solution.

    1. Didn’t the Union conscript immigrants right off the boat to be slaughtered by the Confederacy?

  12. Imagine the 1920s as being a very isolationist, very pro-American, nationalist time where we’re literally closing off borders.

    A conservative wet dream.

  13. Reason’s beltway depravity knows no bounds

  14. I’d like to see a more global look at immigration policy. For instance, how easy was it to get into, say, Canada in 1850 compared to now? What about France or England? Also, what was China’s immigration policy in say, 1905 vs 2020?

    It would seem reasonable to guess that most countries had relatively open immigration systems– no passport needed. Most immigration policy is probably an evolutionary aspect of the modern era. As countries became more developed, and long with that developed comprehensive support systems (welfare to use a more base term) it seems understandable that restrictions would increase for obvious reasons.

    I’ve repeatedly said that the American immigration system was indeed very open– at a time when the immigration process was essentially: Welcome to America *stamp* good luck finding work.

    Which resulted in dozens of immigrants living in one-room quarters, with Jacob Riis taking photos of the squalor.

    Realistically, we’re simply not going back to that time.

    Oh, FYI, I’m a product of immigration as well– my mother was a foreigner who only got her citizenship in the late 90s. If it weren’t for… “immigration” I wouldn’t be here either. For what that’s worth…

    1. I’m pretty sure that the passport system really got started with President Wilson, and we all know how much conservatives love him. Oh no! Cognitive dissonance! Free movement of people is terrible but Wilson was also terrible, yet he’s awesome for restricting immigration! Nooooooooo!

      1. Woodrow Wilson strawman? Really had to reach (around) for that one, didn’t you?

      2. From my little bit of research, the first ‘passport-like’ document was issued in 1414 under Henry V. When the passport became internationally recognized, and who started it, I’m not sure. Need to do more reading but work is getting in the way of my hobbies.

        And FYI, “the free movement of people” is a noble and utopian idea in the modern era. It worked when it worked, and it no longer works with the modern structures we’ve put into place. If a county doesn’t have any restrictions on “the free movement of people across its border” then it is entirely incapable of distinguishing between some people looking for a job and a military invasion.

        If it maintains a definition of a “military invasion”, then that country does not accept the “free movement of people” as a principle.

        1. I tend to think of a military invasion involving big machines, but that’s just me.

          1. So it’s the free movement of people as long as they’re not in some kind of mechanical contraption? Is that… really how you want to frame this?

            Sir, may I have a word with you?

            *sighs* What is it now, Quincy?

            Sir, there appears to be a *checks notes* large number of *checks notes* individuals *checks notes* freely moving across our *checks notes* social construct… should we be alarmed?

            How would I know? Have they violated the NAP?

            Well, sir… *clears throat* according to documents which the free autonomous corporations have not yet fact checked, they are shelling the towns on this side of the… social construct. Unfortunately, reports are hard to come by because Twitter Facebook Google Alphabet, Inc has been blocking any mentions of the situation which is *checks note* their right as a free and autonomous corporation.

            *shrugs* So, you have no evidence of any NAP being violated. For all we know, the individuals on this side of the social construct may have contractually agreed, via the free exchange of goods and services, to engage in their human right of assisted suicide by bombardment.

            Well, sir… I suppose that it’s entirely poss…

            Quincy… how many times do we have to go through this? Have they violated the nap with YOU?

            Well, no sir, we’re quite some dista…

            Exactly. No one has bombarded me without my explict approval. You seem to be unharmed. I don’t hear any incoming shells. Quincy…you’re an individual… I’m an individual, so what’s happening between those individuals on that ridiculous social construct that everyone babbles on about… is between them. Now, if you could please stop violating the NAP by making me continue this conversation, I’d like to get back my ebook on the Great History of Marijuana Legalization, How the World Got So Much Better.

            Sir, I really think that…

            Quincy, I’m beginning to think you’re not a REAL libertarian. And you know what we do with FAKE libertarians around here, do I make myself clear?

            Yes sir. Loud and clear, sir.

            1. Did I actually say I don’t think there should be any rules for people crossing the border?

              1. Perhaps I have misjudged you. I have had dismissive remarks from others (not you specifically) that ANYTHING that “restricts” the free movement of people across the social construct we call a border is a violation of human rights. So then in the spirit of being fair, no, you didn’t not explicitly say that. But that’s how I interpret the dismissal of anything which restricts the “free movement”. Perhaps your definition of free movement is more nuanced than I gave it credit.

                I’m not interested in name-calling and adhominems, but unfortunately one tends to get called every awful name in the book the moment you stand up and say, “Hang on a second” in an attempt to suggest there should be any brakes of any kind instituted at the border.

                1. Welfare and completely free immigration don’t mix. Keeping out sick people and criminals is kinda duh. My solution would be to end the welfare state, but that’s not gonna happen. Honestly I like the idea of sponsorship. Contribute or go home. But that’s not gonna happen either.

                2. Well done Paul!

  15. The recent events with Islamic terrorism and with the caravans from Central America, clearly demonstrate that open borders is the equivalent of cultural and societal suicide. A free country cannot remain so allowing in populations hostile to its history or culture.

    A prime example is Lebanon. Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East up until the 1970’s when the city was the epicenter of Lebanon’s civil war. The strife mainly involved Christians and Muslims. The Muslims were allowed in over time and Lebanon went from majority Christian to almost majority Muslim in a very short time and is now balkanized with areas of Christians, Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. As soon as Muslims reached a certain amount of people, they became violent.

    The Left has also weaponized illegal and even legal immigration in order to not only elect Democrats but also take away our freedoms. The New York Times outlined in an article Breitbart cites linked below revealing how Virginia went from majority Republican to Democrat and immigration was the key to making it happen. Consequently, the legislature has passed gun restrictions and is a haven for even more COVID-19 restrictions on par with what Michigan used to have.

    The Left has also dominated and destroyed the education system that would educate immigrants and their kids about American culture and history. Without that historical knowledge or connection, it is almost impossible to reverse the damage done.

  16. I think a better book would be which immigrants or which wave of immigrants are responsible for turning this country in to the hellhole that its become.

  17. All I want to know is whether or not this woman believes that the forced immigration that began in 1619 is the true foundation of this country.

  18. There’s a whole dynamic left ot that was designed toooo reduce integration wntd is what we’re now have to deal win. From the late 1800’s through to the Wilson Administration, and into the FDR Admin, eugenics was a rampant ideology (yes even in the top levels of our government, Wilson was widely known as an advocate for eugenics) there was a great resentment of immigrants from non European countries, and the welfare system was enacted, in part, as a measure to warrant and secure sympathy for severe border restrictions. Why would Americans want to shell out tax money, employment opportunities and resources to immigrants right?
    My point is, to correct the current border/ immigration problems (especially the illegal entry and subsequent govt forced drain on citizen resources), the federal govt. needs to get out of the welfare business in its entirety. There would then be almost no resistance to a border system like we had prior to the 1880’s.

  19. Isn’t it odd that the period of restricted immigration coincided with increased economic and social equality?

    The dimwit Gen Z’s think “late stage capitalism” is the problem, when it’s actually neofeudalism fueled by open borders.

  20. As we’re fighting [World War II], it becomes clear that our immigration laws don’t match our foreign policy. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned the naturalization of anyone who’s Chinese, but during the war, the Chinese are allies, and it seems embarrassing and downright insulting to signal to our ally, “We don’t actually think that you’re up to snuff to be citizens.” So we slowly crack the door open to Chinese immigration.

    Are you effing kidding me? The justification for opening immigration from another country and cause its citizens to leave is that we might hurt the feelings of the Chinese leadership?

    Did this stop being a valid justification after the Chinese communist party took over China, or are we concerned about their feelings too?

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