RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And we're marking a 50th anniversary of a turning point in legal immigration in America at a moment when presidential candidates are proposing new ways to address illegal immigration. About 85 percent of the U.S. population was white and of European ancestry when the 1965 Immigration Act opened America's doors to immigrants of all nationalities. The face of immigration was transformed to include Asians, Africans and Latin-Americans. In his new book, "A Nation Of Nations," NPR's Tom Gjelten profiles some of the newer American families. Our story today begins in the Virginia State Capitol.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: One day in February, 2012, a junior member of the Virginia House of Delegates rose from his seat.
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MARK KEAM: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Ladies and gentleman of the House, I usually don't stand up a lot on the floor because I have this mentality that anything I have to share, you've probably heard before. And all of us have a lot...
GJELTEN: The man with that mentality was Mark Keam, the only Asian immigrant ever elected to the Virginia legislature. He came to this country from Korea with his parents in 1980, when immigrants from Asia were first arriving in big numbers. The United States had earlier chosen immigrants on the basis of their race and ancestry, using national origin quotas. Very few Asians were allowed. That system was abolished under a new immigration law passed in 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement. Delegate Keam took the floor that day to highlight that achievement.
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KEAM: I would not be standing here today if it wasn't for the 1965 act. And that '65 act would not have been possible if it wasn't for the struggles that African-Americans have done to pave the way for all of us.
GJELTEN: It was Black History Month. Keam believed immigrant and minority groups should join forces. As a teenager, he'd been inspired by Jesse Jackson's call for a rainbow coalition. Indeed, it was through political activism that Mark Keam sensed what it might mean to be an American, an identity that eluded him when he first arrived in the country.
KEAM: I came to the U.S. when I was 14. I went to high school, and my friends were all listening to heavy metal and dressed a certain way and partying and doing things that I thought, that looks like an American thing to do. I wished I could've done that. But I didn't grow up with that.
GJELTEN: But then, Mark went to college. And after reading the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, he came to see America fundamentally as an idea.
KEAM: I thought, wow, 200 years later, I'm actually part of this experiment. I am actually living this same experiment these guys 200 years ago have done. That makes me an American, the fact that I am now living this life of creating something new. And so for me, it was a mindset change that forced me to understand that I am now an American.
GJELTEN: But he was also Korean. And the woman he married, Alex Seong, was a Korean immigrant like himself, though one who was raised in a more insolated environment.
ALEX SEONG: You know, we ate Korean food all the time, watched Korean TV, did everything Korean, spoke Korean.
GJELTEN: Alex's parents, working for low wages in a chicken processing plant in southern Maryland, hadn't exactly encouraged Alex and her three brothers to think of America as their home.
SEONG: They always said to us, you know, this isn't really our country. You can't, you know, make waves. Just study hard. Just work hard 'cause this is not our country, and we don't want - you know, we don't want to give our country or people a bad name.
GJELTEN: But the man she married had a different view. He said Korean-Americans had every right to become involved, to compete for office and represent their people. And Alex's father was impressed.
SEONG: When he met Mark and he saw what good he could do for our community and for America, he just really was proud. And he really wanted to support him.
GJELTEN: At this, she gets teary. Her father passed away five years ago.
SEONG: I'm sure he would have wanted him to go and be a senator one day, just go as far as he could.
GJELTEN: How far can an immigrant politician go? Immigrants compete with other workers, sometimes other minorities, for jobs and resources. And their alliances can be strained. Even among immigrant groups, ethnic and religious conflicts sometimes develop. Mark Keam still argues that immigrants can unite around what they all have in common.
KEAM: They made a decision individually or as families that their lives back home were too miserable for them to endure. And they'd rather take the risk, and at very high cost, of packing up and moving to a whole new country. All of us, we came here for that one mission, which is we want to have a free life and a better life than where we came from.
GJELTEN: But they did come from different places, and they bring different values. The first time he ran for office, Mark Keam's opponent in his party primary was another immigrant, a man from Libya named Esam Omeish, a Muslim. The Omeish story tomorrow. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.