President Lyndon B. Johnson (right) giving Congressman Michael Feighan the famous "Johnson treatment" aboard Air Force One in 1964.Princeton University Library

The Republican primary campaign has gone on so absurdly for so long that it’s become easy to think it’s some kind of whacky cable television show, rather than a process that actually has a purpose and an end.

But alas, here we are, at the point where the actual voting begins.

On February 1, Iowans will put down their deep fried butter and head off to the election booth. Polls show that Republican residents of the Hawkeye state are torn between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and so that dubious duo have been going at it hard in recent weeks. And at the center of their fight is the issue of immigration.

As CNN reported this week: “Cruz, in a dogfight with Trump for top billing in Iowa, launched an early-state offensive here meant to tear into Trump's position of strength by exposing his record on his signature issue: immigration,” later adding, “Across Iowa on Saturday (January 24), Cruz began a closing pitch to unravel Trump's immigration cachet, portraying him as an embracer of ‘amnesty’ masquerading as a restrictionist in order to win a Republican primary.”

For many neo-nativists of the Trump variety, America’s immigration problems began in the 1960s. They tend to have a sentimental view of the Ellis Island generation of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland and elsewhere in Europe. Immigration then slowed in the 1920s (thanks to laws passed as a backlash to heavily Catholic and Jewish immigration waves) and the 1930s (because of the Great Depression.)

By the mid-1960s, with major legislation passed to secure Civil Rights and Voting Rights for African Americans, lawmakers then looked to reform the U.S. immigration system. In fact, we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act back in October. President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the new law at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

Funny thing about that law. It radically transformed the nature of American immigration. It was not supposed to. It’s main architect, a prominent Irish American lawmaker, hoped the new law would bring more immigrants from Ireland and other European countries to which American had historic ties.

We know how that turned out.

The story of this radical change is the subject of Tom Gjelten’s new book "A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story."

“Fifty years after its passage, it is clear the [Immigration and Nationality Act] definitively altered the complexion of the U.S. population,” Gjelten has written.

“In 1965, the immigrant share of the population was at an all-time low. Eighty-five percent of the population was white, and seven out of eight immigrants were coming from Europe. By 2010, the share of the U.S. population born overseas had tripled, and nine out of 10 immigrants were coming from outside Europe.”

At the center of the debate over and passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act was Michael Aloysius Feighan, described in Gjelten’s book as a “dour Irish American,” who was also chairman of the House Immigration subcommittee.

According to Gjelten, Feighan had no interest in passing any immigration legislation. But Feighan was subjected to President Johnson’s infamous lobbying, generally known as “the treatment.”

So, being that a law was going to be passed, Feighan and others at least wanted to control the kinds of immigrants who came to the U.S. Initially, they wanted to prioritize those whose skills were in short supply in the U.S.

Feighan, however, “insisted on prioritizing those immigrants who already had relatives in the United States,” believing “that a family unification preference would favor those nationalities already represented in the U.S. population, meaning Europeans” such as the Irish, Gjelten writes.

He adds: “The motivation of Europeans to move to the United States was diminishing, while the urge to migrate was growing in Asia, Africa and other non-European countries.”

Once small numbers of the latter groups got to the U.S., they were able to sponsor many more family members.

Which brings us to where we are today – a diverse “nation of nations.” Or, if you are voting for Trump or Cruz, a post-apocalyptic hellhole on the brink of disaster.

But don’t blame the immigrants. Blame Michael Aloysius Feighan.

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