Part political history, part intimate social narrative, part economic and cultural analysis, A Nation of Nations is a major contribution to the ongoing discussion about immigration in America.
In the decades since, America’s founding myth of openness has been tested. Prior to 1965, three out of four immigrants came from Europe, and the country’s cultural character reflected its Anglo-Saxon roots. As Gjelten writes, “The evident premise of U.S. immigration law was that the explanation for America’s success in the world actually lay in its European heritage, not in its history as a country shaped by enterprising newcomers.” Fifty years after passage of the 1965 Act, nine out of ten immigrants are coming from other parts of the world, including Vietnam, Korea, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico, Central America, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and many other places previously unrepresented. As one of the last—and most important—acts of the civil-rights era, the 1965 Act forced a new consideration of the U.S. national identity. By committing to a multicultural heritage, America took a thrilling gamble, betting heavily on its own resilience.
Gjelten’s narrative portrays in rich detail five immigrant families from Asian, Arab, and Latin American countries as they settle into Fairfax County and struggle to find and embrace the values that bind them to their new homeland and make them fully American. The families profiled in A Nation of Nations are illustrative of the immigration experience across America and their stories incorporate many immigrant themes, including friction between minorities, the drive to compete and create, and the burdens associated with racial and cultural stereotyping. Among the characters in this epic story are the politicians and pundits who debated for years whom the country should welcome, the African American activists who overcame segregation only to face competition from new immigrant neighbors, and the government officials who had to design services for a population of various languages, faiths, and colors.
Tom Gjelten is a veteran journalist and author of Sarajevo Daily: A City and Its Newspaper Under Siege and Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause. Over a thirty-year career as a correspondent for NPR News, he has covered wars in Central America, the Middle East, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as major national stories in the United States. His NPR reporting has won him two Overseas Press Club Awards, a George Polk Award, and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. He is a regular panelist on the PBS program Washington Week, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a member of the Editorial Board at World Affairs Journal. Follow @TGjelten.