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The Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act: 50 Years Later

October 6, 2015


President Lyndon Johnson signing the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act on Liberty Island on October 3, 1965

On a cool October day in 1965, politicians and reporters gathered at the foot of the Statue of Liberty to watch as President Lyndon Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act, ending national and race-based quotas for American immigration.  “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill,” he began, “It does not affect the lives of millions.  It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly either way to our wealth or our power.”  At the time, the law garnered very little attention, and was ignored by most historians for many years.   But as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Act this month, it is clear how crucially important it has been in both shaping our multi-cultural American society and in creating the immigration problems that we face today.

Johnson, along with politicians and policymakers, believed that the Act was most important for its symbolic impact.  Just a year before, Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, and national origin.  To many Americans, the race-based quota system was beginning to seem both archaic and embarrassing.  At the same time, the U.S. sought to defend itself against Communist Russia’s charges of racism and cement its position as a global power.  Abolishing the national origins system and its foundations of race-based restriction, Johnson reasoned, would correct “a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.”

Racism and xenophobia had indeed been an enduring theme in American immigration law.  In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, creating the first major restriction on U.S. immigration, and ushering in over half a century of increasingly restrictive immigration policies.  In 1924, in response to a significant influx of immigrants just after World War I, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed act, instituting a national quota system.  Countries outside of the Western Hemisphere were assigned quotas based on their representation among the foreign-born in the census of 1890, which preceded the major waves of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.  By 1929, 70% of American visa slots were reserved for immigrants from Northern Europe.

In removing quotas based on race and national origin, and allowing widespread immigration from Africa and Asia for the first time, the Hart-Celler Act appeared to be a vast departure from earlier immigration law.  But while the law was designed to create the appearance of an open immigration policy, policymakers assumed that little would actually change.  One of the Act’s major provisions was a preference for immigrants who already had family members in the U.S.  Since quota-based immigration policies had assured that the vast majority of immigrants who had already settled in the U.S. were Western European, policymakers believed that the make-up of the American immigrant pool would stay substantially the same when the new laws went into effect.  Throwing open America’s gates would not result in drastic changes, Secretary of State Dean Rusk explained in testimony to the Senate, because there was not a “world situation where everybody is just straining to move to the United States.”

Rusk could not have been more wrong. In the decades following Hart-Celler, America experienced drastic changes in both the numbers and origins of immigrants.  The number of immigrants entering the U.S. after 1965 rose significantly, from approximately 250,000 in the 1950s to 700,000 by the 1980s.  Doors were opened to large-scale immigration from Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, where extremely motivated immigrants took advantage of the family reunification provisions of the law to engage in chain migration, bringing an average of 2 relatives to the U.S. for each new green card granted.  Within a few decades of Hart-Celler, family unification had become the driving force in U.S. immigration, favoring those who were most determined to move -exactly those nationalities the critics of the Act had hoped to keep out.

These new immigrants deeply changed the face of American immigration and American society.  Where America was 85% white before 1965, today, over one third of Americans describe themselves as non-white.  Ethnic enclaves experienced rapid growth, with restaurants and grocery stores that brought new cuisines, churches and temples that introduced Asian religions ranging from Hinduism and Buddhism to Sikhism and Jainism, and new styles of music, fashion, and entertainment.  While America has always been a nation of immigrants, the large influx of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean greatly shaped the multicultural society we have today.

But the Act’s unintended consequences were not all for the better.  Before 1965, immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries was numerically unrestricted.  Hart-Celler set the first limits on the Western Hemisphere, allotting the entire hemisphere less than half of the visa slots used by Mexicans alone the year before.  The options for Mexicans looking to work legally in the U.S. had already been drastically reduced just months before as Congress voted to end the Bracero Program, a system that allowed Mexican guest workers legal entry to the U.S.  Despite these changes, economic migration from Mexico has continued at its same high levels for the past fifty years, in part to meet the continued demand for low-cost manual labor in the American South and Southwest.  America’s problem with illegal immigration is not one that suddenly began with the appearance of more migrants in the latter half of the 20th century; it was a legal and linguistic consequence of the 1965 Act.

Far from Johnson’s belief that the law would be merely symbolic, Hart-Celler drastically changed the face of America and continues to shape our attitudes towards immigration today.  With immigration poised to be a deciding factor in next year’s elections, Hart-Celler’s precedents offer both problems and promise.

– Dr. Rachel Feinmark is an ACLS Public Fellow/Manager of Strategic Communications at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum