One gray-haired, elderly woman and I were the only people who’d come to the Indian Consulate in New York City to take the six hour, two part examination in beginning Hindi. We were both married to men from India and wanted to learn our husbands’ language.
At lunch, between part one and part two of the exam, she shared her story with me. She was a physician who had spent most of her adult life in India. In the 1930s she had married in the United States, and when she did, her American citizenship was taken away from her.
I could not believe it! She had no earthly reason not to tell me the truth–but it was inconceivable to me that the United States, land of immigrants, would take away a native-born American’s citizenship just because she had married an Asian. I smiled and nodded, but vowed to myself to go home and do some research.
She was telling the truth. In 1907, with the Expatriation Act, any American woman who married a foreign national lost her citizenship. In 1922 that part of the law was repealed–but not for American women who married Asians.
After she married, she went to India and lived most of her life there, practicing medicine. That was easier, I suppose, than to live as a woman without a country, here, in the United States, where she was born and raised.
It occurred to me that her husband should have applied for American citizenship before their marriage. Then she could have kept hers. I was naive: he could not. In 1923 the Supreme Court had ruled that Indians from the Asian subcontinent could not become U.S. citizens. Although anthropologists deemed them Caucasians, the Court decided they were still not white. Only whites and Africans, by law, could be citizens.
Over the years, Congress has often sought to adjust the ingredients in the American melting pot. The Immigration Law of 1924 established quotas on how many people from each country could come to the United States based upon the numbers already living in the US in 1890–before the huge–and unwelcome influx from Southern and Eastern Europe. Preference would henceforth be given to British, Irish, German, and other Northern Europeans. Asians were not welcome at all.
My own immigration story began in the 1960s. It would have been relatively easy for me to emigrate from Canada to the U.S. There were no quotas on people from the Western Hemisphere.
But I had married an Indian who wanted to come to the States. By this time, a new law was in effect, the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. It retained quotas, but got rid of the racial restrictions. Immigration was possible for him…just extremely difficult.
The quota for India was 100 per year. It was also 100 for Pakistan, the country where he was actually born. (In 1947, when India and Pakistan had gained their independence, his family fled to India.) It was also 100 for many other countries as well–the lowest possible number allowed by law.
Other quotas were more far more generous. Of the 154,000 annual immigration visas allowed, Great Britain received 65,700; Ireland, 17,800; Germany, 25,900.
No wonder there were so few Indians living in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s!
In 1965, the year I married, Lyndon Johnson signed a new immigration law that abolished quotas by nationality. Immigration laws now favored those with family in the States (my former husband had none) or skills needed by the U.S. (he had a PhD in chemistry). In 1966, he and I and our baby boy drove across the border in our little blue VW bug to begin our new life in the United States.
We were not the only ones who came after 1965. Nowadays several million Indians live and work in the States. Several have won Nobel prizes. They’ve started successful companies, teach in our universities, practice medicine, write novels, go into politics, become engineers and IT specialists. They are part of the mosaic that is the United States. As a group, they’ve been wildly successful and they contribute a great deal.
Their story is like the story of many others who have been drawn here by the promise of a better life. Still, I worry.
In the 1960s, when I came of age and when immigration laws were changed, the mood in our country, especially among the young, was more liberal than I’ve seen it before or since. Many of us who were young believed all the lyrics in our folk songs:
“Come on people now, smile on your brother. Everybody get together, try to love one another right now.”
But the sixties are long gone. Laws can change for the better, but they can also change for the worse. We’ve been anti-immigrant before, many times.
We know the story of the Japanese-Americans: well over 100,000 were sent to internment camps during World War II. They were not the Japanese who had bombed Pearl Harbor. It didn’t matter. Thousands of Germans and Italians were placed in internment camps too. We treated these people badly because we were afraid. We’re afraid now.
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, we deported or coerced hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who were mostly legal residents or American citizens to leave the United States. We did it because jobs were scarce. Jobs are scarce now.
These days, anti-everybody-else rhetoric has reached a fever pitch. Nonsense is fervently repeated until it sounds true. We need immigration laws, to be sure, but surely they should be based on rational and fair principles.
In Yeat’s poem, “The Second Coming,” written in the aftermath of World War I, he writes
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Maybe, if we believe in liberty and justice for all, it’s time to stand up to all that passionate intensity.
Copyright by Margaret French, October 9, 2011