July 1, 2015

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act Turns 50



Fifty years ago President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), forever changing the U.S. immigration system. It went into effect 47 years ago yesterday, June 30, 1968.

With the backdrop of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act earlier in the decade, the justification for excluding many immigrants from outside western Europe began to crumble. The 1965 legislation removed quotas based on national origin and set in place a system based primarily on family reunification and economic contribution. The “melting pot” was expanded to include more immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. This significantly changed the demographics of the United States.

As Johnson signed the legislation in October 1965 on Liberty Island in New York, he said it “corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.” Furthermore, he stated that “for over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and has been distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system.”

In his signing statement Johnson said that only three countries were allowed to supply 70 percent of all immigrants. The 1965 act undid this “deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice.” He went so far as to call the quota system “un-American.”

In the 1960s, 67 percent of immigrants were from Europe, 9 percent from Latin America, and less than 0.5 percent from Africa. In 2013 the numbers were dramatically different. More than half came from Latin America or the Caribbean, 4 percent from Africa, and just 13 percent from Europe. (These numbers continue to change.)

The biggest impact came from Asian immigration since Asian countries had had the smallest quotas. In 1960 just 3 percent of immigrants came from Asia. In 2013, 25 percent were from Asia. And while Mexico led as the country with the most immigrants for decades, China and India overtook Mexico, signaling a new change to U.S. immigration demographics.

In 1965 the foreign-born share of the population was 5 percent. Today, it stands at more than 13.

The act, by emphasizing family reunification, gave way to the notion of chain migration. Immigrants could use the visa system to bring in multiple relatives. This policy resulted in significantly more immigrants than lawmakers had envisioned.

While the 1965 act increased the annual amount of immigration, it abolished most temporary visas. Also, a year earlier the bracero guest-worker program had ended. Both changes would set the stage for the rise in illegal immigration in years to come as legal channels for workers were curtailed.

It was critical that the U.S. government disposed of the explicitly racist national-origin system. The INA resulted in the largest change in immigration policy in the last century. But as it stands today, the INA, alongside immigration legislation enacted since, is outdated. Simply put, the country has outgrown 1965.

Arbitrary caps should be dramatically increased for both high- and low-skilled immigration. Family reunification is a crucial part of U.S. immigration policy; however, a labor-focused immigration policy would improve the U.S. economy and offer more opportunities to immigrants around the world looking to contribute in the United States.

In marking the anniversary of this historic act, we should reflect on just how much society can change through significant immigration reform. As the prospects for reform on both the state and national levels continue to improve, Ellis Island may get another chance to welcome a president with a signing pen ready to change America forever.