Half a Century of Barely Controlled Immigration

Ian Smith, National Review, October 9, 2015

This week marks a big anniversary for those who think mass immigration is an inevitability, destined to occur like plate tectonics. Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Immigration and Nationality Act, a piece of legislation that would revolutionize America’s immigration system from one that was conscious and selective about whom we let in to the barely governable system we have today. The bill’s drafters, however, never expected or intended such a dramatic change, and the fact that President Johnson left out all mention of the act in his memoirs isn’t surprising.

Before 1965, our immigration system emphasized cultural assimilation and tight labor markets. In 1921, Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Quota Acts, a conscious choice of the American public to halt the 1880-1920 “Great Wave” of eastern and southern European immigration (which averaged 600,000 annually). The move limited a nationality’s allotment of immigrant visas according to that nationality’s proportion of America’s population at the turn of the century. Two-thirds of a new 160,000-visa cap would go annually to Britain, Ireland, and Germany, the settler-stock and first-immigration-wave nations. On top of the concern that immigration should mirror the makeup of the nation, the system was designed to emphasize sought-after skills, with two-thirds of all the spots going to people “urgently needed in the United States.”

{snip} Indeed, this new, more selective immigration system proved to be both wildly popular and successful. The quotas were renewed in 1924 and again in 1952, and in terms of America’s social development, the ensuing four and a half decades of restricted immigration were perhaps our nation’s finest. Limits on the practice of importing labor to break strikes and compress wages helped create the American middle class, while the cultural “hodgepodge” (to borrow Obama’s phrase) that had been growing during the Great Wave period began melting away.

Although this system ended with the 1965 act, no one expected the status quo to change much, including its main advocate, Senator Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.). In his opening remarks during the introduction of the bill, Kennedy famously promised that “our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually” and that the “ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.” During congressional testimony, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D., N.Y.), another booster, tried to “rest any fears” by stating that the bill would not “change the ethnic, political, or economic makeup” of the country. Senator Hiram Fong (R., Hawaii) said the act would “not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or most populated and economically deprived nations of Africa and Asia.”

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What the 1965 act actually did was twofold: It took the existing nationality quotas and basically applied them to all countries (with slightly more allotments going to the southern and eastern hemispheres), and it added a new, unlimited “family reunification” category for spouses, children, parents, siblings, and other family members. It was this latter provision that caused the mass-immigration situation we have today. {snip}

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{snip} With quotas now being opened to all countries, post-1965 immigrants were largely coming from the relatively poor Asian and Latin American nations. And because those newcomers had immediate ties to big families back home (Mexico’s fertility rate in 1960 was 7.2), their immigration rates quickly exploded. Most European Americans, on the other hand, had few links left with Europe and could not benefit from the family-reunification provision. This led New York congressman Emanuel Celler, the lead sponsor of the 1965 act, to lament years later that the new system created “unintentional discrimination” against Europeans. {snip}

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On this anniversary of the act, Americans must remember that the 50-year tide of immigration that their nation’s experienced was never inevitable or intended. Mass immigration can be stopped again.

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