1965 Immigration Act, Presented as Symbolic, Changed Nation

Deepti Hajela, Yahoo! News, October 3, 2015

It was considered a symbolic move–President Lyndon Johnson going to the Statue of Liberty and signing an immigration bill that gave people from every country in the world an equal chance to come to America.

The president himself described the legislation as less than revolutionary. “It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power,” he said during the ceremony on Oct. 3, 1965.

But, he noted, the new law also would “strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways.”

Fifty years later, there’s been dramatic change as a result of the Hart-Celler Act that Johnson signed. A country that was almost entirely native-born in 1965 has a significant foreign-born population; demographic diversity has spread to every region, expanding a black-and-white racial paradigm into a multicolored one. Americans have gleefully adopted musical genres and foods that have immigrant origins, while remaining conflicted and uneasy politically over who’s here, legally and not.

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Pushed by the American families of European immigrants who wanted to bring relatives over, Congress decided to replace the nation’s tightly controlled, country-of-origin immigration system with a process that divided visas equally between all countries, giving preference to immigrants with advanced skills and education or with family ties to U.S. citizens.

Some in Congress thought that virtually nothing would change. At that time, many figured European immigrants would be the main beneficiaries.

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However, immigrants from places like Asia and Latin America came to the U.S. as well. They also made use of the family preferences to bring over their parents, children and siblings. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, 59 million people have come to the U.S. since 1965, just over half from Latin America and a quarter from Asia.

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The law also led to the contemporary issues of immigrants in the country without legal documentation, said Alan Kraut, history professor at American University.

Prior to 1965, countries in the Western Hemisphere didn’t have quotas, so those in Mexico and Central America could come back and forth fairly regularly. Once the law was enacted, those countries had quotas as well, but they weren’t high enough to meet the built-up demand.

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