Fifty Years Later, the Immigration Bill That Changed America

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tags: immigration, Great Society



Related Link How Should Historians Remember the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act? (OAH)

On the 2016 campaign trail, immigration has been a flash point unlike any other. But as Donald Trump pushes his scheme to build a wall across America’s southern border and Hillary Clinton promises to go further than President Obama in protecting migrants without documentation, a major immigration reform a half-century ago is a reminder that policy changes often don’t go as planned. For today’s politicians, perhaps the biggest takeaway of the Immigration and Nationality Act is to expect unintended consequences.

It was back in 1965, during the depths of the Cold War and the peak of the civil rights movement, that the United States overhauled its immigration laws. Working with liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans (who existed back then), President Lyndon Johnson pushed a bill that did away with the “national origins quota” system. The old quota system, in place since the 1920s, determined who could immigrate to the U.S. based on ethnicity, with a heavy tilt toward Western Europeans—especially the English, Irish and Germans. Only small allotments were granted to Eastern Europeans, Asians and Africans.

That became an issue for the United States in the ‘60s, when new countries were emerging from colonialism, pitting the U.S. and the Soviet Union in a contest for their allegiances. Republican Senator Jacob Javits, a liberal from New York, noted in September 1965 that the immigration system, with its bias toward Western Europeans, “remains today a target for Communist propaganda…making our effort to win over the uncommitted nations more difficult.”...

By ‘65, however, some conservatives in the U.S. House publicly “worried about the size and scale of future Latin American immigration,” says Dan Tichenor, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon, “and were trying to put barriers in its way.” Liberal lawmakers didn’t like that idea, but they doubted that the new restrictions would have much impact. The limits were high enough, Senator Javits conceded, that immigration from the Western Hemisphere under the new law “would be approximately the same as the level reached last year”—a modest 140,000 or thereabouts. Yet the total number of persons of Mexican origin in the U.S. went from 5 million in 1970, the first census after the act, to almost 34 million today.




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