NPR reporter to discuss America’s immigration policy since 1965

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April 9, 2018

Tom GjeltenTom Gjelten’s ancestors immigrated from Norway to the United States in the 1800s.

Eventually, Gjelten’s family settled in Minnesota, where he grew up and graduated from the University of Minnesota. As a reporter for NPR, Gjelten has traveled the world and reported as a war correspondent covering the brutal civil war in the former Yugoslavia and in Central America. He now covers issues of religion, faith and belief for NPR News.

Gjelten is coming to Saint John’s University to discuss his latest and fifth book, “A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story,” which was published in 2015.

He will be speaking on the implications of immigration policy for the United States at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, at room 102, Saint John’s University Art Center. The event is free and open to the public, and is part of the “Ethical Thinking in Modern Times” lecture series, sponsored by the University Chair in Critical Thinking, SJU Pottery and the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement.

Gjelten’s lecture will be preceded by a social gathering from 5-6:30 p.m. at Saint John’s Pottery Studio which is also open to the public.

“A Nation of Nations” examines immigration after the 1965 Immigration Act was passed in America. When the law was passed, fewer than 5 percent of Americans were foreign born.

Fifty years later, immigrants made up nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population, and the composition of the foreign-born population had changed dramatically. The 1965 act abolished the national origin quotas that favored immigrants from Europe and discriminated against all others.

Over the next several decades, America’s founding myth of openness was put to a test. Since the act was passed, nine of 10 immigrants have come from other parts of the world. America committed itself to a multicultural heritage.

“Tom Gjelten sings of a new America that bravely invites newcomers,” said “Free Food for Millionaires” author Min Jin Lee. “‘A Nation of Nations’ would have pleased (Walt) Whitman himself for its generosity, spirit and hope. This book is both smart and moving.” 

Gjelten joined NPR in 1982 as a labor and education reporter. In 1986, he became one of NPR’s pioneer foreign correspondents, working in Central America and then in Central Europe.

From 1992-94, he reported from war-torn Sarajevo, which was the basis for his book, “Sarajevo Daily: A City and its Newspaper Under Siege.” The New York Times newspaper called his work “a chilling portrayal of a city’s slow murder.”

Gjelten has twice received the Overseas Press Club Award for his coverage of the economic transition of Eastern Europe in the 1990s and the war in Yugoslavia. His reporting on the wars of the former Yugoslavia also received the Lowell Thomas Award, George Polk Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

After returning from his overseas assignments, Gjelten covered U.S. diplomacy and military affairs, first from the State Department and then from the Pentagon. He was reporting live from the Pentagon at the moment the building was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and was NPR’s lead Pentagon reporter during the early war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq.

He has also reported intensively from Cuba in recent years. His 2008 book, “Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause,” is a history of modern Cuba told through the life and times of the Bacardi rum family.