Published On: Thu, Oct 1st, 2015

JFK/LBJ immigration reform rings in 50th anniversary

Fifty years ago on Oct. 3, 1965, the most liberal immigration law in the world — the Immigration and Nationality Act — was signed by President Johnson under the Statue of Liberty. It was the last of the major Great Society laws to be passed during the emerging civil rights era. It became Senator Ted Kennedy’s lifetime legislative legacy. It truly changed the face of America. It has had a huge impact as well as on immigration laws throughout the western world.  Its many unintended consequences can be seen today in the heart-wrenching chaotic immigration crisis in Europe and on our Southern border.

The story of the 1965 immigration law actually began in the 1920s when our most selective and first comprehensive immigration law was passed – the National Origins Quota Act. That law allowed Northern European immigrants to come in without limit while all other nationalities but Mexicans were placed on a highly restrictive quota.

In the context of the times, passage of the highly restrictive immigration law was understandable. It came about after 40 years (1880s-1920s) of the largest surge (still) of unregulated immigrants in U.S. history. Migrants were fleeing from intolerable turmoil in their homelands. New Progressives led by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt were concerned about the working and living conditions of millions of unprotected low-wage immigrant workers in rich roaring-twenties urban enterprises.  There were threats of another world war that war-weary Americans wanted to avoid. Many Americans feared an invasion by an alien political force – Communism. All this created a mood in America to control the borders (if this sounds ominously familiar to our times, there may be a lesson here).

On the other hand, the 1965 Act was passed in an entirely different time. There was an euphoric post WWII economic boom. America had won world leadership. Immigration levels were low. And there was guilt: over the denial of refuge for millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust and over discrimination facing loyal WWII African American soldiers and their families in the South by onerous Jim Crow laws. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination based on race, religion, creed and national origin. Obviously an immigration law based on nationality quotas had to go.

But the 1965 immigration, aka the Hart-Cellar Act, also passed because of the passionate bipartisan leadership of America’s top leaders: President Johnson and Senator Ted Kennedy. They not only worked tirelessly for this bill, but also gave credit to others when it passed. That was Senator Philip Hart of Michigan, a civil rights advocate known as “the conscience of the Senate”; and Congressman Mani Cellar, elected in 1923, a Jewish Congressman from Brooklyn who spent 45 years fighting against the national quota act that excluded persecuted Jews. Ironically all of them denied that the INA would affect U.S. demographics.

The 1965 Immigration Act made two seismic changes to our immigration policy. First, all immigrant nationalities are treated equally; no nationality can have more than 7 percent of al permanent visas given out in one year. Cultural compatibility per se was no longer a criteria.

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." - John F. Kennedy January 20, 1961

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy January 20, 1961

The second major change was that the majority of permanent immigration visas now go for “family unification”. After 1965 and to this day, the majority of permanent visas go to extended family members as long as they fall under the 7 percent nationality rule.

Mani Cellars also was able to change the Congressional jurisdiction of immigration from Labor to Justice. The inference was that immigration was no longer about the nation’s work force development but social justice.

There are basically three major (and unintended) consequences of the law:

1) A rapid increase in the number of legal immigrants from some 170,000 allotted in 1965 to currently in 2015  over 3 million annually on green cards and the post-1965 invented “temporary” non-immigration immigrant permits

2) A completely unexpected rise in the number of illegal immigrants – increasingly on temporary visas – and the need for not only border but internal enforcement

3) The faux tenor of immigration as a civil right coinciding with a general reluctance to enforce immigration law especially through deportation

We are seeing the harsh consequences of that third impact today as hundreds-of-thousands of immigrants surge the borders of Europe and the U.S.A. demanding entry on moral grounds. But the way they are entering provides them no legal right to settle in these nation states, all of whom welcome immigrants, but have legislated laws on how immigrants and refugees are to apply. Advocates rarely bring up that the basic core right of nation states is to choose who can come in, settle, work, and become citizens not less their right to enforce their immigration laws without being called xenophobic and anti-immigrant.

Immigration laws evolve with changing times. We saw it in the 1920s and the 1960s and we are seeing it now. After 50 years, many parts of the INA are outdated. Even its main precepts of “no nationality preferences” and “family unification” are questioned. The INA like all immigration laws, is a work in progress and will eventually change with the times.

Peggy Sands Orchowski  Ph.D. has covered immigration reform on Capitol Hill for the last 10 years and is the author of the new book, The Law That Changed The Face of America: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. For more information, please visit, www.porchowski.com.

Arizona protesters 2010 photo/Chzz via wikimedia commons

Arizona protesters 2010 photo/Chzz via wikimedia commons

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  1. Don Honda says:

    The effect of the Hart Celler Act on US Citizens who are poor, uneducated, who have lost their jobs to Illegal Aliens is not mentioned. Most of those affected are our own minorities. This effect was warned about in 1965:


    “In light of our 5 percent unemployment rate, our worries over the so called population explosion, and our menacingly mounting welfare costs, are we prepared to embrace so great a horde of the world’s unfortunates? At the very least, the hidden mathematics of the bill should be made clear to the public so that they may tell their Congressmen how they feel about providing jobs, schools, homes, security against want, citizen education, and a brotherly welcome… for an indeterminately enormous number of aliens from underprivileged lands.” “We should remember that people accustomed to such marginal existence in their own land will tend to live fully here, to hoard our bounteous minimum wages and our humanitarian welfare handouts…lower our wage and living standards, disrupt our cultural patterns.” Myra C. Hacker, Vice President of the New Jersey Coalition of Patriotic Societies, on the 1965 Hart Celler Act

    “Whatever may be our benevolent intent toward many people, the bill fails to give due consideration to the economic needs, the cultural traditions, and the public sentiment of the citizens of the United States.” Myra C. Hacker, on the 1965 Hart Celler Act

    Also, isn’t it interesting that the catholic church is one of the largest recipient of financial “donations” in the world? If the pope is so concerned for these migrants, then why doesn’t he exhort those countries (including his native Argentina) to take care of their citizens in need?

    Catholic Church collects $1.6 billion in U.S. contracts, grants since 2012

    “Not to be lost in the pomp and circumstance of Pope Francis’ first visit to Washington is the reality that the Catholic Church he oversees has become one of the largest recipients of federal largesse in America.”

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