Historians on America:The Immigration Act of 1965
America.gov | 2013-01-23 11:23

Intended and unintended consequences of the 20th Century

Many poor immigrants, often from Eastern Europe, entered the U.S. in the early 20th century through Ellis Island

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3 of that year, he stressed the law's symbolic importance over all: "This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. 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. Yet it is still one of the most important acts of this Congress and of this administration [as it] corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation." The president from Texas was not being uncharacteristically modest. Johnson was saying what his advisors and "experts" had told him.

Little noted at the time and ignored by most historians for decades, the 1965 law is now regarded as one of three 1965 statutes that denote the high-water mark of late 20th-century American liberalism. (The other two are the Voting Rights Act, which enforced the right of African Americans to vote, and the Medicare/Medicaid Act, which financed health care for older Americans and for persons in poverty.) The Immigration Act was chiefly responsible for the tremendous surge in immigration in the last third of the 20th century, and also greatly heightened the growing incidence of Latin Americans and Asians in the mix of arrivals to the United States in the decades that followed.

Why did the president's experts so markedly misjudge the myriad potential consequences of the new law? Because they focused on old battles while failing to analyze the actual changes which had already occurred by that date. Indeed, to understand the nature of the changes wrought and who was able to come to America as a result of the new law, it is necessary to examine the prior course of American immigration policy.

American Immigration Policy Before 1921
Prior to 1882, there were no significant restrictions on any group of free immigrants who wanted to settle in the United States of America. In that year, however, Congress passed the somewhat misnamed Chinese Exclusion Act (it barred only Chinese laborers) and began a 61-year period of ever more restrictive immigration policies. By 1917, immigration had been limited in seven major ways. First, most Asians were barred as a group. Among immigrants as a whole, certain criminals, people who failed to meet certain moral standards, those with various diseases and disabilities, paupers or "persons likely to become a public charge," some radicals, and illiterates were specifically barred. Yet, in spite of such restrictions, total immigration – except during the difficult years of World War I – continued to grow throughout the final two decades of the 19th century and the first two of the 20th.

Perhaps because of the influx, anti-immigrant sentiment among nativists heightened when a sharp post-World War I economic downturn combined with fears about the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and left-wing domestic radicalism resulted in a panic about a largely imaginary flood of European immigration. The chairman of the immigration committee of the House of Representatives, Albert Johnson, a Republican representing a rural district in Washington state, used excerpts from consular reports to argue that the country was in danger of being swamped by "abnormally twisted" and "unassimilable" Jews, "filthy, un-American and often dangerous in their habits." While those views were extreme for the time, the consensus of Congress was that too many Southern and Eastern Europeans, predominantly Catholics and Jews, were coming into the country – and this view was clearly shared by many if not most Americans in those days. Spurred by such distaste, if not alarm, in the 1920-21 winter session of Congress, the House of Representatives voted 293-46 in favor of a 14-month suspension of all immigration.

The somewhat less alarmist Senate rejected the notion of zero immigration and substituted a bill sponsored by Senator William P. Dillingham, a Vermont Republican. His plan was agreed to by Congress but was vetoed by the outgoing president, Woodrow Wilson. The new Congress repassed it without record vote in the House and 78-1 in the Senate. Wilson's successor, President Warren G. Harding, signed it in May 1921.

Immigration Quotas of the 1920s
The 1921 act was a benchmark law placing the first numerical limits, called quotas, on most immigration. A similar but more drastic version – the version that Lyndon Johnson complained about – was enacted in 1924. Then and later attention focused on the quotas, but they did not apply to all immigrants. Two kinds of immigrants could be admitted "without numerical limitation": wives – but not husbands – and unmarried children under 18 of U.S. citizens, and immigrants from Western Hemisphere nations.

Nations outside the Western Hemisphere were assigned quotas based originally on the percentage of the population from that nation among the foreign-born as recorded in the census of 1890, which restrictionists called the Anglo-Saxon census because it preceded the large influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans. (After 1929 an allegedly scientific method was used to reduce immigration even further.) Under both regimens, nations of Northwest Europe got the lion's share of new slots for immigrants, even though already for decades most immigrants had come from Eastern and Southern Europe.

The 1924 law also barred "aliens ineligible to citizenship" – reflecting the fact that American law had, since 1870, permitted only "white persons" and those "of African descent" to become naturalized citizens. The purpose of this specific clause was to keep out Japanese, as other Asians had been barred already. (American law at the time defined Asians in terms of degrees of latitude and longitude, a provision that left only those living west of Afghanistan eligible for immigration to the United States.) And, as a further control, all immigrants, quota and non-quota, were required to obtain entry visas into the United States from U.S. consuls in their country of origin before leaving. While some American foreign service officers were "immigrant friendly," many, perhaps most, refused visas to persons who were legally eligible for admission. The State Department's instructions to its consular officials emphasized rejection rather than admission. A 1930 directive, for example, provided that:

If the consular officer believes that the applicant may probably be a public charge at any time, even during a considerable period subsequent to his arrival, he must refuse the visa.

But even with the new restrictions, significant numbers of immigrants continued to be admitted throughout the 1920s. In fact, the 1929 figure – almost 280,000 new immigrants – would not be reached again until 1956. The Great Depression and World War II reduced immigration drastically. As Table 2 on page 81 shows, both the number and incidence of foreign-born in the nation fell. In each census from 1860 to 1920 the census recorded that about one American in seven was foreign-born; by 1970 that figure had dropped to fewer than one in 20.

Americans came to believe that the era of immigration was over. The leading historian of American nativism, John Higham, would write in his 1955 classic, Strangers in the Land, that:

Although immigration of some sort would continue, the vast folk movements that had formed one of the most fundamental social forces in American history had been brought to an end. The old belief in America as a promised land for all who yearn for freedom had lost its operative significance.

Although no one seems to have perceived it, the era of ever increasing immigration restriction had come to an end a dozen years before.

Refugees and Other Wartime Changes
In December 1943, at the urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wished to make a gesture of support to a wartime ally, Congress repealed the 15 statutes excluding immigrants from China, gave a minimal immigration quota to Chinese, and, most important of all, made Chinese aliens eligible for naturalization. Three years later Congress passed similar laws giving the same rights to Filipinos and "natives of India," and in 1952 it erased all racial or ethnic bars to the acquisition of American citizenship. Unlike immigration legislation of the pre-World War II era, these and many subsequent changes in laws were motivated by foreign policy concerns rather than concern about an anti-immigrant backlash among domestic constituents.

In addition, before 1952 other changes had taken place as well in American policy. It had begun to make special provision for refugees. In the run-up to World War II, Congress had refused to make such provision, most notably by blocking a vote on a bill admitting 20,000 German children, almost all of whom would have been Jewish. Former President Herbert Hoover backed it; President Roosevelt privately indicated that he favored it but in the end refused to risk his prestige by supporting it. Historians and policy makers would come, in the wake of the Holocaust, to condemn American failure to provide a significant haven for refugees from Hitler, though in point of fact many Jewish refugees did make it on their own to American shores. Vice President Walter Mondale spoke for a consensus in 1979 when he judged that the United States and other nations of asylum had at least in this sense "failed the test of civilization" before and during World War II by not being more unreservedly generous to Hitler's potential victims.

Thus, the first of three bitter post-World War II legislative battles over immigration policy was fought between 1946 and 1950 and focused on refugees. By the end of 1946, some 90 percent of the perhaps 10 million refugees in Europe had been resettled largely in their former homelands. The remainder, referred to as displaced persons, or DPs, were people who literally had no place to go. Although DPs were often perceived as a "Jewish problem," only about a fifth of the 1.1 million remaining DPs were Jews. Many of these wished to go to Palestine, then mandated to Britain, which refused to allow them to enter.

President Harry S Truman tried for nearly two years to solve the problem by executive action because Congress and most Americans were opposed to any increase in immigration in general, and to Jewish immigration in particular. At the beginning of 1947 he asked Congress to find ways in which the United States could fulfill its "responsibilities to these homeless and suffering refugees of all faiths." This is the first presidential suggestion that the nation had a "responsibility" to accept refugees. It has been echoed by each president since then.

Truman himself sent no program to Congress. We now know, as many suspected then, that the White House worked closely with a citizens committee which soon announced a goal of 400,000 refugee admissions. Success came in two increments. In June 1948, Congress passed a bill admitting 202,000 DPs, but with restrictions that many refugee advocates felt discriminated against Jews and Catholics. Truman signed it reluctantly, knowing that was the best he was going to get from Congress at that point. Two years later he signed a second bill which increased the total to 415,000 and dropped the provisions that he had complained about.

To create the illusion for their edgy constituents that the traditional quota system was still intact, Congress pretended that the immigrants admitted by these bills above their national quotas represented, in essence, "mortgages" that would be "paid off" by reducing quotas for those nations in future years. This manifestly could not be done. To cite an extreme example, the annual Latvian quota of 286 was soon "mortgaged" until the year 2274! Congress quietly cancelled all such "mortgages" in 1957.

In the event some 410,000 DPs were actually admitted. Only about one in six were Jews; almost as many, about one in seven, were Christian Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European nations. Most of the rest were Stalin's victims, persons who had been displaced by the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, mainly Poles and persons from the Baltic Republics.

Continuing Controversy Over the Quota System
While the immediate postwar refugee battle ended in favor of admitting at least some refugees, the bitterness about immigration continued in an ongoing debate about revising the basic statutes largely unchanged since 1924. The resulting statute, the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, was passed over Truman's veto while the Korean War raged. President Truman and most other liberals (but, interestingly, not Senator – later President – Lyndon Johnson) were repelled by a kind of side issue: the act's Cold War aspects which applied a strict ideological litmus test not only to immigrants but also to visitors. Under the provisions of the act, many European intellectuals, such as Jean Paul Sartre, could not lecture at American universities.

Truman's veto message (overridden in the end by Congress), praised the act's abolition of all purely racial and ethnic bars to naturalization per se, its expansion of family reunification, and elimination of gender discrimination. But the president said the INA "would continue, practically without change, the national origins quota system." President Truman and most subsequent commentators really failed to understand the full potential impact of the limited changes wrought by the McCarran Act. In particular, they neglected to consider the potential effect of those wrought by an obscure provision – Section 212(d)(5) – which gave any future president discretionary parole power to admit unlimited numbers of aliens "for emergency reasons or ... in the public interest." In practice this meant that later presidents would order, for example, the admission of large numbers of Hungarian, Cuban, Tibetan, or Southeast Asian refugees and Congress would later regularize that action.

Analysis of all admissions during the 13 years that the INA was in effect (1953-65) shows that some 3.5 million immigrants legally entered the U.S. Just over a third were quota immigrants. Non-quota immigrants were an absolute majority in every single year. Asian immigrants, supposedly limited under an "Asia-Pacific triangle" clause to 2,000 per annum, actually numbered 236,000, almost 10 times the prescribed amount. Family members of native-born or newly naturalized Asian Americans accounted for most of these. In addition, the INA years mark the first period in American history in which European immigrants did not dominate free immigration: 48 percent were from Canada, the Caribbean, and Latin America, with the largest number from Mexico. Seven percent were from Asia, and only 43 percent from Europe.

The 1965 Immigration Act
Although the national origins system was no longer dominant, in the 1960s its last-ditch defense was led in the Senate by Sam J. Ervin, a North Carolina Democrat, who later, in the 1970s, was to become a hero to liberals for his role in the Watergate hearings. But, in 1965, Ervin took a conservative stance, arguing that the existing quota system, as modified, was not discriminatory but was rather "like a mirror reflecting the United States." What Ervin and others who supported similar "cultural" arguments for restriction never admitted was that their "mirrors" were distorted, reflecting not the United States as it was already becoming in 1965, but as it was profiled decades earlier in the 1920 census. Their cause was doomed as many Americans adopted more cosmopolitan views.

In any event, spurred in part by the liberal ideological climate of the 1960s, the new law once and for all abolished national quotas and substituted hemispheric caps: 170,000 for the Eastern Hemisphere, and 120,000 for the Western, with a limit of 20,000 annually from any nation. These caps seemed to set an annual limit of 290,000 on immigration, but that was an illusion. As had been true of its predecessors since 1921, there were provisions for immigrants whose entry was authorized outside of numerical limits. The new law expanded the categories of family members who could enter without numerical limit, and reserved most of the enumerated slots for more distant family members of citizens and even some family members of resident aliens.

There was a seeming cap on refugees. The new law set aside 6 percent of the overall global immigration cap for them (amounting at the time to 17,400 visas annually), but left the McCarran Act's presidential parole power intact. Thus by century's end more than three million refugees had come from Hungary, Cuba, Vietnam, Tibet, and elsewhere, initially admitted by parole and later regularized by Congress.

But the bulk of the 22.8 million immigrants who entered between 1966 and 2000 were family members of recent immigrants participating in continuing streams of so-called "chain migration," with arriving immigrants making still other family members potential future immigrants. Fewer of those immigrants came from Europe. The chart left shows regional shares.

No one in 1965 could have envisioned this result. It is common to attribute the liberalization of immigration requirements to the lessening of racial and ethnic prejudice in America over time, a social trend that has resulted in diversity rather than homogeneity in population as an ideal among many. Most authorities, however, would give even greater weight to the changing goals of American foreign policy. They argue that immigration policy is a subset of foreign policy and that the monocultural goals of policies laid down in the 1920s were inappropriate for a nation seeking global leadership.

An analysis of the kinds of persons who have come to America since 1965 reveals both similarities with and differences from those who came in the classic age of heavy immigration between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and 1924. The major continuity is that most immigrants in both eras came to work, and employers were able to pay them less than the going rate. But other factors are quite different. No longer do most immigrants arrive from Europe. Other differences include gender – earlier immigrants were overwhelmingly male, and since 1950 there has been a slight female majority. And the differences include educational and skill levels. Most earlier immigrants had educational and skill levels below those of the average American, while in recent years a sizeable minority is highly skilled. In fact, it has become common to speak of a "brain drain" from the origin countries. Absolute majorities of contemporary immigrants can be described as coming from developing nations.

When we examine all global migration flows, we find that Europe, which since the Age of Discovery had been an exporter of population, has become in the post-World War II era a target for immigration, often from former colonies. Many Europeans were slow to recognize these changes. When former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl made his claim that Germany had never been a nation of immigrants, the census showed that the Federal Republic had a slightly larger percentage of foreign-born residents than did the United States.

In the current era of globalization, most advanced industrial nations are deeply involved with immigration. In the United States, despite the tightened security measures resulting in part from the horrors of 9/11, immigration flows have continued high. The dual phenomena of importing labor and at the same time exporting jobs – overseas "outsourcing" – while increasing corporate profits and growth of the economy, have also exacerbated social stresses that may well increase, at least in the short term.


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