Barack Obama’s father has a story like Donald Harris’s. In 1959, with Kenya on the verge of independence, the nationalist leader Tom Mboya hatched a scheme to send talented young Kenyans to Western universities so they could return and help run the fledgling country. The British colonial authorities dismissed the idea because a British-affiliated university was next door in Uganda. So Mboya went to the U.S., where he raised funds from Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Jackie Robinson, and, later, from presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who thought the plan might make Kenya’s emerging elite pro-American. One of the students who won Mboya’s scholarship was Barack Obama Sr., who met Ann Dunham, the future president’s mother, in a Russian class at the University of Hawaii in 1960.
Read: The real story of Obama’s mom
Gopalan, Harris, and Obama Sr. were ahead of their time. In the early 1960s, the U.S. permitted few immigrants from Africa and Asia. But that changed with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which opened America’s doors to newcomers who weren’t from northern Europe. From 1965 to 1970, the number of immigrants from Asia quadrupled. Immigration from the Caribbean was almost four times higher in the 1960s than it had been in the 1950s. And the number of international students in the U.S.—many of whom stayed in the country after receiving their degrees—began a steady climb from fewer than 100,000 in the late 1950s to 400,000 by the late 1980s to more than 1 million by the time Trump took office. In 2016, nine of the 10 countries that sent the most students to the U.S. were in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.
Supporters of these trends often defend them in economic terms. Immigrants, they note, are responsible for many of the patents created by America’s top research universities. Foreign students’ tuition subsidizes public universities during an era in which state-government support has dwindled. And many foreign students go on to create companies that employ Americans.
But there’s an asymmetry between establishment pro-immigration voices, who generally stress materialist arguments, and the conservative nationalists, ascendant under Trump, who define immigration primarily as a political, cultural, and racial threat. In her book, Adios America, which helped shape Trump’s immigration message in 2016, Ann Coulter depicts the 1965 immigration law as part of a progressive strategy to flood the United States with nonwhite immigrants so that conservatives can’t win elections. “Democrats had not been able to get a majority of white people to vote for them,” she writes. “Their only hope was to bring in new voters.”
This line of argument reduces immigration to an electoral ploy, and Democrats often respond by stressing the utilitarian benefits of welcoming people from all over. But the very existence of Kamala Harris and Barack Obama reveals a political effect that can’t be captured by statistical generalizations. Immigration into the United States allows multicultural interactions that produce Americans who can see the country from both within and without.