Gary Gerstle reviews Aristide R. Zolberg’s A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America in Dissent.
Aristide R. Zolberg’s A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America is an extraordinary achievement. In its sweep, erudition, conceptual precision, and analytic acuity, it may be the most important book on the history of immigration policy published in twenty-five years. It reaches back into the eighteenth-century origins of the American nation and forward to the post–September 11, 2001, country we now inhabit. In between, Zolberg analyzes virtually every critical moment and development in American immigration policy: the first naturalization law in 1790; the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; the Passenger Acts of the antebellum period (through which states tried to regulate immigration by stipulating passenger/tonnage ratios); the anti-immigrant policy proposals that emerged from the Know-Nothing movement in the 1850s; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; the Literacy Act of 1917; the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924; debates during the 1930s about whether to open America’s gates to Nazism’s victims; and the major immigration reform packages of 1952, 1965, 1986, and 1996. Full consideration of these many legislative debates, laws, and policy consequences requires extensive narration and analysis. Indeed, with its more than six hundred pages of text and notes, this book is not for the faint of heart. But Zolberg’s writing is always crisp. And he inserts into his analysis revelations about policy both large and small, along with meditations of the most profound sort about what kind of nation we have been in regard to immigration—and what kind of nation we ought to be.