Assessing the Impact of the 1965 Immigration Act



Fifty-five years ago – on October 3, 1965 – President Lyndon B. Johnson (D) signed into law the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart–Celler Act. While to some 1965 may seem like a very long time ago, that year’s immigration legislation opened up the flood gates, leading to decades of sustained mass immigration, almost tripling the foreign-born share of the U.S. population between 1970 (4.7 percent) and 2018 (13.7 percent).

Before the INA of 1965

The INA of 1965 replaced the national origins quote system, which had been the core of U.S. immigration policy since the early 1920s. Following the First World War and the late-19th/early-20th-century “Great Wave” of immigration, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 pegged immigration to America’s ethno-cultural makeup in 1890, thereby favoring Northwestern Europeans while excluding Asians and significantly reducing overall immigration. It should be noted that, as the Center for Immigration Studies points out, legal immigration from the Western Hemisphere (i.e. Latin America) was left “unrestricted — a gesture of hemispheric solidarity that also served the cheap-labor interests of American employers.” Overall, however, as immigration historian John Higham argued, “a very rapid and widespread assimilation went forward” as the foreign-born share of the U.S. population went down from 14.7 percent in 1910 to 5.4 percent in 1960.

Increasing Immigration Numbers Since 1965

The 1965 legislation that replaced this system was in many ways influenced by the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Thus, the new INA condemned and scrapped the national origins quota system as racist and discriminatory, which they were. The annual admissions ceiling was almost doubled, from 150,000 to 290,000, with 170,000 visas per year being allocated to Eastern Hemisphere countries and 120,000 to those in the Western Hemisphere.

Those numbers may seem relatively small compared to the approximately 1 million per year the U.S. has been admitting for decades. However, the INA of 1965 paved the way for further expansions of mass immigration. For instance, the Immigration Act of 1990 built, in many ways, on the 1965 legislation by significantly increasing the annual admission numbers (to 700,000) and also introducing the controversial “diversity” visa lottery.

“Chain Migration”

One of the major aspects of the 1965 law was that is based immigration to the United States on family reunification, also referred to as family-based preferences. What this meant in practice was that immigrants could sponsor not only their wives and children, but also other relatives, to join them in their new homeland. Frequently referred to as “chain migration,” this flood of relatives endlessly sponsoring other relatives, now accounts for almost two-thirds of all immigrant admissions to the United States.

For instance, in 2018, 700,000 immigrants – out of a total of 1.1 million admissions that fiscal year – were “family-sponsored” immigrants. In addition, 4 percent of admissions that year were diversity visa recipients, and 17 percent were refugees or asylees. Less than 13 percent of all immigrants in FY2018 were employment-based admissions.

Here is what that means in practice: most immigrants are selected by other immigrants, based on who they are related to, not what they know. As someone who came to the U.S. after being sponsored by my father, I certainly understand why many are so attached to this cornerstone of the 1965 INA. However, there is a big difference between allowing immigrants to sponsor spouses and minor children, and endless “chain migration.” Moreover, one need not be an “immigration hawk” to recognize that the post-1965 immigration system has been heavily skewed towards the needs and wants of foreign nationals, while the needs of the U.S. or the desires of Americans often have to take a back seat (all too often, bringing them up actually opens one up to accusations of “xenophobia” or “selfishness”).

Changing Demographics

Many on the left and within the pro-mass-immigration lobby celebrate the INA of 1965 as leading to a more diverse America (while often also bemoaning that it didn’t go far enough). Whether this was the original intention of the law’s drafters is debatable. Nevertheless, while the law certainly allowed more Southern and Eastern Europeans to enter the United States, the vast majority of the beneficiaries of the post-1965 system have emigrated from Latin America, Africa, or Asia. The reason is that, by 1965, Western Europe – having been rebuilt after the ravages of the Second World War – was enjoying a wave of prosperity and there was not a great demand to emigrate. Central and Eastern Europe, meanwhile, was under the red yoke behind the Iron Curtain and people were largely prevented from emigrating by communist regimes. Thus, immigration quotas were filled by non-European immigrants whose relatives did have a desire to move to the U.S. Thus, an immigration system that discriminated in favor of certain nationality groups by design was replaced by one that discriminates in favor of other nationalities by default.

However, one paradoxical aspect of the immigration system created by the 1965 INA is the quasi-monopolizing of this flow by certain countries, such as Mexico, China, and India (this holds true even if one excludes illegal aliens). This is largely the result of “chain migration” coupled with the large populations of the top sending countries. The diversity visa program was introduced in part as an attempt to remedy this problem, thereby showing that for the advocates of mass immigration the only acceptable solution to the problems of mass immigration is to further increase mass immigration.

Misleading Americans Into Accepting Unending Mass Migration

Last but not least, an important thing to remember about the 1965 INA is that its promoters and defenders consistently denied that the legislation would radically change the U.S. immigration system or the country itself. For instance, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) claimed that “our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. (…) the present level of immigration remains substantially the same (…) the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset (…). Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill]will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area,” and “will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.” Needless to say, everything that Kennedy assured us would not happen in the wake of the 1965 INA has indeed come to pass, sooner or later, as a result of the trajectory established by the floodgate-opening legislation.

The sustained mass immigration resulting from the INA of 1965 has often been compared to the Great Wave (1880 – 1920), mainly to calm mainstream Americans’ potential concerns about excessive levels of unchecked migration (“relax, we already went through this before, and everything turned out OK!”). Of course the second Great Wave (1965 – 2020) has already lasted longer than the first wave, not to mention other factors that make it an apples and oranges comparison (e.g. greater pressure to assimilate immigrants and quite different economic conditions during the 1880 – 1920 period).

Thus, after 55 years of unending high levels of mass immigration, the United States needs a lull to successfully integrate the numerous immigrants that are already here, particularly at a time when COVID-19 continues to undermine our economy and job market. That is why we need to make the immigration flow to the U.S. much more merit-based while also reducing it, at least temporarily.

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