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The 1965 Immigration Law and the Demographic Transformation of the United States

Statue of Liberty
New York Statue of Liberty | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia | New York Statue of Liberty | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
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In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, President Lyndon B. Johnson and congressional leaders gathered on Oct. 3, 1965, for the signing of an immigration bill. In his speech that day, Johnson called the previous immigration system of the United States "un-American in the highest sense."

"We can now believe that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege," he said. Then, he said that the new law was "not a revolutionary bill."

However, time has told another story.

The immigration reform bill, known by the names of its principal sponsors (Hart-Celler) was indeed revolutionary: It did away with a century and a half of racial and national origin-based immigration, which existed since the beginning of the country.

In 1963, then President John F. Kennedy had called the situation "nearly intolerable" in a speech to the American Committee on Italian Migration, one group that heavily lobbied for the policy changes.

After the Kennedy assassination, Congress approved sweeping reforms, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.   

A new immigration system was seen as an extension of that civil rights era by many. A New York Times editorial explained that "in a time when this country is attempting to wipe away ancient wrongs against Negro citizens, its conscience will not permit a sign at all ports of entry reading: "only whites from Northwestern Europe are welcome."

The new policy eliminated a quota system, created in 1924, which gave 70 percent of the visas to just three countries: the United Kingdom, Germany and Ireland. Over the next 50 years, the system created by the new law helped immigration grow in numbers and it diversified the population of the United States.

From national quotas to family and skilled

The new law eliminated the system that assigned quotas for immigration to nationalities that had a minimal representation in previous U.S. Census numbers.

The new policy was based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States. Though it abolished the national quotas that favored northern European countries, it established new country quotas, but exempted the immediate family members of U.S. citizens from those quotas.

Although in later years, immigration restrictionists criticized what some called "chain-migration," the family-based immigration system was initially embraced by some in Congress as a way to try to keep America white.

But flows of immigration have changed as wars in Europe ended and demographic explosions and political crises in Latin America and Asia pushed many to seek refuge – or better economic opportunities – elsewhere.

The system created by the 1965 laws, with some reforms, is still in use.

Consequences of the new system

Hart-Celler changed the face of America, to a more diverse, more Latin American, more Asian country, an ongoing transformation that periodically causes tremors of reaction from some quarters in the United States.

Here are the numbers to prove those changes, courtesy of the Pew Hispanic Center and the Migration Policy Institute.

The immigrant population is more diverse and less white: In the 1950s, more than half of all immigrants were Europeans and just 6 percent were Asians. Since 1965, flows of immigration have been more than half Latin American and one-quarter Asian.

Figure 1 Migration Policy Institute

Immigration to the United States increased, but its share today is still lower than in 1870, 1890 or 1910. In 1965, fewer than 10 million people living in America were foreign-born, just 4.8 percent of the U.S. population. Today, that number is 45 million, or 13.9 percent of the U.S. population. But the percentage of foreign- born U.S. residents was higher in the era of mass migration before restrictive immigration laws. For example: 14.7% in 1910, 14.8% in 1890, 14.4% in 1870.

Limits imposed by the national quota immigration laws of 1924 and restrictions to Asian immigration brought the foreign-born share down to less than 5 percent in 1965, when the new law was passed, and it increased progressively after that.

Proponents of restrictive immigration blame the 1965 law, but it was not the only reason for the increase. Other important causes were:  

The abolition of the laws excluding Chinese and other Asian immigrants, which was a political necessity for the United States during and after World War II. This change opened the door for the immigration of ethnic Chinese, and later Vietnamese, Cambodian, Filipino and other Asian immigrants.

The elimination in 1964 of the Mexican Bracero program, which brought temporary migrants to do seasonal labor. The number of Mexican immigrants fluctuated around 450,000 temporary braceros and 50,000 permanent residents. The migration was mostly "circular" and invisible to most Americans. But unions were critical of this program and it became very controversial, so it was eliminated.  

Mexican migrants went from having almost half a million temporary visas, to only 20,000 visas under the quota system. That was when illegal immigration from Mexico started to go up and, according to professors Massey and Pren, in a Princeton University study, that change can be directly attributed to having no "legal way to accommodate the long established flows."

Since passage of the 1965 law, an estimated 59 million immigrants have come to the United States. Some say it has made the country younger, brought economic growth and prosperity. Critics argue that it has created more competition for low-skilled U.S. workers.

A major study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggests that the immigrants that have come post-1965 and their descendants are successfully integrating into U.S. society but the degree depends on many variables for each group.

Still, the 1965 law continues to shape immigration to this country, because the basic system of legal immigration did not change again significantly until 1996.

That year, in the aftermath of economic uncertainty and terrorist attacks, major restrictions were added to the Immigration and Nationality Act, complicating the adjustment to legal status for millions and pushing the numbers of undocumented immigrants to new highs.

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