Great Migration Debates: Keywords in Historical Perspective
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

Only during the Cold War did “nation of immigrants” enter discussions of national policy. In the 1950s, President Harry S. Truman found the phrase useful both in emphasizing the assimilatory successes of the U.S. (which understandably suffered from global Cold War attention to “Jim Crow” failures) and in his quarrels with Congressional leaders who insisted on continuing national origins quotas in the 1952 McCarran–Walter immigration act. In 1958, presidential aspirant John F. Kennedy, likely with the help of historian Arthur Mann, wrote his influential A Nation of Immigrants for the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League’s “One Nation Library.” By then Kennedy was the best-known advocate of eliminating the national origins quotas. Still, it was only after 1965, after quotas had been eliminated, that the term spread rapidly through journalism, scholarship, and popular political writings, including into some of the earliest multicultural texts, whose authors apparently hoped the metaphor could be expanded to include the histories and American experiences of all outsiders, whether or not they had come to the U.S. as European “emigrants” or “immigrants” or as slaves.

Writing about “illegal aliens,” Mae Ngai has argued recently that immigration reformers succeeded in abolishing the national origins quotas only because they did not attack restriction or advocate significant increases in the numbers of visas available to prospective immigrants. This cautious approach may have been the only politically possible option open to reformers then. And it may remain the only politically viable option today. Since the 1930s, public opinion polls have fairly consistently documented that the largest group of respondents believes current levels of immigration—at any given time, and regardless of the actual volume—are “too high” (see Blendon et al. 2005). Because restriction defines the shared ground for contemporary debaters’ otherwise sharp political differences, including Presidents Bush and Clinton and recent presidential candidate John Kerry, all can insist that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants even while they worry about the impact of “illegal immigration” on the rule of law. Opponents in today’s debates disagree mainly about how to restrict and how much to restrict.

Critics on both the far right and left grasp how phrases such as “illegal immigration” and “nation of immigrants” unite mainstream debaters. Thus, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who recently urged multicultural activists to “Stop Saying This is a Nation of Immigrants!” (, finds herself oddly in  agreement on this one point with strict restrictionist Peter Brimelow ( Brimelow repeatedly asserts the legitimacy of the restrictionist tradition in the U.S. His argument that all nations—including his country of birth, the United Kingdom—are also amalgams of many peoples, and thus also “nations of immigrants,” is well taken although it scarcely supports his portraits of today’s immigrants to the U.S. as devastating threats to American culture or nationhood. If Brimelow cannot imagine today’s immigrants assimilating or contributing to a nation of immigrants, Dunbar-Ortiz worries instead that immigrants of color might embrace a myth of nationhood built on the “comforting lies of the Colonizers” rather than on the opposition of the country’s anti-colonial racial minorities.

To attend to which debaters use which keywords, in what context, and to what end, is to borrow the traditional tools of historians of ideas. The use of digitized texts in these familiar ways is by no means revolutionary. Such texts do, however, build a methodological bridge from humanist concerns with meaning and language to the social sciences most concerned with systematic analysis through quantitative methods.

Whether applied to digitized or traditional print texts, analysis of keywords will not resolve contemporary policy conflicts. But when they reveal past alternatives, they can at least remind us of the ideas that have completely disappeared from today’s debates. Notably absent today are debaters who unapologetically advocate free human movement across international boundaries. Yet even in the nativist 1850s, the Know-Nothings did not dare challenge that freedom: they were not restrictionists seeking to diminish the number of entrants but rather advocates of longer waiting periods prior to naturalization, limits on the rights of resident foreigners, and limits on the Catholic Church. Neither the Know-Nothings nor their contemporaries imagined themselves living in a “nation of emigrants.” Prior to the Civil War many were far too skeptical of extending federal powers to write comfortably of an American “nation.” Even today most Americans prefer to celebrate an “American people” rather than the “American nation.” (In the digitized New York Times, one finds roughly one reference to an “American nation” for every ten references to the “American people.” Discussions of an “American nation” surged only temporarily during times of threatened or actual war—hot or cold.)

In today’s age of globalization, by contrast, even libertarians and neo-liberals—those who remain ideologically closest to eighteenth-century political philosophy—hesitate to advocate freedom of movement as an essential form of liberty, alongside freedom of speech or free trade. (For suggestive evidence on this point, see, as examples:;; Apparently, Americans can no longer imagine a nation that does not restrict the movement of persons across its borders. While many of the stereotypes of the foreign-born have persisted for more than a century, the debaters themselves and the nationhood they seek are not what they once were.