Kamala Harris’s parents showed that new arrivals create new possibilities.
Of the many questions at stake in this fall’s election, one of the less obvious is this: Will the United States remain a country where someone like Barack Obama or Kamala Harris—a person of color with immigrant parents—is likely to be born? The answer depends, in part, on whether America’s universities retain their global appeal. If Donald Trump wins reelection, they may not.
Harris and Obama exist because, after World War II, American universities grew more attractive than their British counterparts to many young strivers from the decolonizing world. As the New York Times reporter Ellen Barry explained in a recent story, the current Democratic vice-presidential nominee’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, yearned to be a scientist. But in the British-influenced educational system prevalent in newly independent India, that wasn’t easy for a woman. At New Delhi’s Lady Irwin College, established by the wife of a former British viceroy, Gopalan was forced to study “home science.” When she looked for a graduate institution that would teach her biochemistry, according to her brother, she couldn’t find one in the United Kingdom. So, in 1959, she enrolled at UC Berkeley.
For his part, Harris’s father, Donald, won a scholarship designed to allow promising young Jamaicans to study in Britain. But Harris disliked Britain’s “static rigidity” and had read a story about Berkeley students going south to fight for civil rights. He showed up at Berkeley in 1961 and met Gopalan the following year.
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.
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.