1. Immigration and Nationality Act
2. Background
3. Significance of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act
4. Continuing Source of Debate
5. Present-Day Implications
6. The 1965 Act: Success or Failure?
7. 1952 US Immigration and Nationality Act (a.k.a the McCarran-Walter Act)
8. National Policy Beat in Brief

Immigration and Nationality Act

The Immigration and Nationality Act was passed in 1965. Also referred to as the Hart-Celler Act, its purpose was to eliminate a previous policy that was based on a person's national origin. The previous system was designed to draw skilled labor to the United States and to reunite immigrant families.

The policies that were initiated by this Act caused a great change in demographics in the country. Many immigrants poured into America from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, but not many from Europe. October 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the seminal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

President Lyndon B. Johnson turned the new act into law when he signed it at the base of the Statue of Liberty. With that signing, changes began that form the basis of current immigration practices, and they continue to alter the demographics of America today and will for decades into the future.

Once the Hart-Celler Act was passed, it put an end to the U.S. policy that focused on race and ethnic groups. This opened the door to immigration on a large-scale basis, legal and illegal.

America has had a hard time trying to define what it means to be an American and deciding which immigrants should be permitted to enter the United States. President George Washington had declared that America was for “the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions." Americans still strongly consider this country to be a “Judeo-Christian nation,” which makes it hard to accept the idea of Muslim Americans.


Calls for the reformation of the immigration policy had greatly increased by the 1960's due to the rapid rise of the civil rights movement. During that period, the same system of immigration was used since the 1920's, when immigrants were accepted or rejected based on a quota according to nationality and U.S. Census records. The civil rights movement focused on equal rights of all people, and this quickly antiquated the quota system as being discriminatory.

Various groups, who were trying to enter the U.S. in growing numbers, such as the Italians, Poles, and Portuguese, made the claim that they were being discriminated against and that Northern Europeans were being favored.

Before long, President John F. Kennedy started fighting for reform of the immigration policy, calling it "intolerable" in 1963. After Kennedy had been assassinated, debates in Congress began that led to the passing of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. This Act was sponsored jointly by Representative Emanuel Celler from New York and also by Philip Hart, a Senator from Michigan. Senator Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts heavily promoted it as well.

During debates that followed in Congress, several experts testified that they believed that little would change under the modified legislation, and it was viewed as more of a matter of principle if there were a more open policy.

When he signed the act into law on October 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated that the act was not revolutionary. He indicated that it would not affect millions of lives or reshape the daily lives of Americans or add to their wealth or power.

Those who were in opposition to the bill made the argument that the United States was basically a European nation, and they wanted it to stay that in that form. A Democrat Senator from North Carolina, Sam Ervin, argued that the people of Ethiopia have as much right to immigrate to America as the people of Europe. He then added that this should not be because Ethiopia had not made any contributions to the development of America.

Critics of the bill pointed out that problems in high population areas would drive many desperate people from their poverty-stricken country to inundate the United States.

Most of those who supported the bill were not especially in favor of bringing in many immigrants of color.A Representative from New Jersey, Peter Rodino, who was of Italian descent, stated that America as a nation is strong proof that a nation can be both diverse and unified. A response often heard that contradicted the arguments for nativism tended to say that the new proposed plan would not be likely to change the current trends of immigration.

Dean Rusk, who was the Secretary of State at the time, testified before Congress that he did not see any evidence showing that everyone is just waiting for the chance to come to the United States.

Even though assurances were given that the immigration pattern would not significantly change, it did not persuade conservative critics. A change at the last minute did relieve their fears of a large influx of Africans and Asians. In the early versions of the Immigration Act of 1965, cosponsored by the liberal Democrats Cellar and Hart, favor was to be given to immigrants who had skills that were beneficial to the United States.

Conservatives, being led by Representative Michael Feighan, a Democrat from Ohio, changed the priority to those who were trying to be able to join their families in America. Feighan, who was the Chair of the House Immigration subcommittee, stated that basing immigration on the idea of unifying families would create “a naturally operating national-origins system,” that would lead to immigration coming primarily to the western and northern countries of Europe.

When the emphasis was changed from trying to replicate the American culture to that of reuniting families, it opened the door to chain migration. This meant that once a single migrant from a Hispanic, Asian, or African nation was naturalized, that his or her brothers and sisters, as well as their spouses, and then their brothers and sisters, etc., can legally come to America. 

Once the Act was passed, it only took a couple of decades to see that family unification brought to America those very people that the critics had intended to keep out, simply because they were the most anxious to move.

Significance of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act

In the following years, the Immigration Act brought about a dramatic change that resulted in a powerful impact that continues to this day. The change replaced the quota system, but gave preference to several categories, including the relatives of U.S. citizens and those who were permanent residents, as well as those with valuable skills, or those who were fleeing violence.

In place of quotas, a cap was placed per country, on the total amount of immigration, and caps were given for each category. While the reunification of families was an important goal in the beginning, the policy soon allowed entire families to enter the U.S.

Within just five years after the bill was passed, immigrants from Asian countries, particularly those who were fleeing the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, had more than quadrupled. Immigration policies of the past favored countries in Northern and Western Europe and sought to limit immigration from Africa, Asia, Southern and Eastern Europe, and from the Middle East.

Conflicts during the Cold War period of the 1960's and 1970's resulted in millions of people trying to flee from the hardships under the communist governments of Eastern Europe, Cuba and elsewhere to try and find fortune in America.

Within only three decades of the passage of the Immigration Act, as many as 18 million people entered the country legally, which was more than three times those who were permitted entrance in the past 30 years. When the 20th century had ended, the policies put into the Immigration Act of 1965 greatly changed the population of America.

More than half of the immigrants of the 1950's were Europeans, and only 6 percent were from Asia. During the 1990's only 16 percent of immigrants were from Europe, but as many as 31 percent were from Asian nations. Immigrants from Africa and those of Latino descent had also greatly increased considerably.

Between 1965 and the turn of the century, more immigrants came from Mexico than any other country – as many as 4.3 million. Another 1.4 million people came from Korea, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, India, Cuba, and Vietnam – each one providing more than 700,000. The primary idea of removing the national-origins quotas, which had been in effect since the 1920's, was to ensure that immigrants would primarily come from Europe.

The new law placed yearly caps of 170,000 visas for people emigrating from the Eastern Hemisphere, and a single country could not send more than 20,000. A first-time cap was also placed on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere of 120,000 visas.

Three-fourths of those being admitted were in family categories. Those people who were considered immediate relatives were exempt from the caps, and as many as 24 percent of the visas granted were given to children of U.S. citizens.

The limit of 20,000 immigrants per country was assigned to countries in the Western Hemisphere. Then, in 1978, a cap of 290,000 was applied to all immigrants worldwide.

Even though it was ratified a half-century ago, the Hart-Celler foundation still governs the immigration system of America today. Current immigration policy sets five categories for family-based relationships, which is capped at 480,000 visas. This figure does not include immediate relatives of American citizens which are exempt. There are also five categories which are based on employment, and they are capped at 140,000 visas.

Small numbers of immigrants enter the U.S. through refugee protection channels and through the Diversity Visa Lottery. The Lottery enables immigrants to enter America from countries that do not have many people immigrating to the U.S.

The Immigration Act of 1990 was passed by Congress to bring to the U.S. a larger share of workers who are highly skilled and educated who are allowed to come through employers. Immigrants coming to America through family relations make up two-thirds of legal immigrants, and 15 percent become citizens through employers.

Continuing Source of Debate

Political debate about illegal immigration was frequent, as many poured into the United States through the borders of Mexico and Canada. The issue was attempted to be addressed by the Immigration Reform Act in 1986, which aimed to provide better enforcement of the existing immigration policies and to make it easier to obtain immigration legally. This program provided two amnesty programs for illegal aliens, and it also gave more than 3 million illegal aliens amnesty.

Just four years later, the 1990 Immigration Act was passed which modified the Act passed in 1965. This act raised the caps to 700,000 total and enabled more immigrants to come from countries that were "underrepresented."

When the economic recession hit America in the 1990s, it brought about a resurgence of anti-immigrant feelings. Lower income Americans felt that they were competing with immigrants who were often willing to work for smaller wages.

In response, Congress passed a new act in 1996 to deal with the problem, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. It dealt with border enforcement and various social programs being used by illegal immigrants.

Although the Act of 1965 brought about massive changes, the consequences were unintended. It changed the demographics in just a matter of a few years, by allowing more immigrants from countries that were not admitted in large numbers previously.

New permanent residents holding green cards rose from only 297,000 in 1965 to about 1 million per year since the mid-2000's. Those who were foreign born rose from 9.6 million in 1965 to an all-time high of 45 million in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends Project. In 1965, immigrants accounted for only 5 percent of the population in the U.S., but now make up 14 percent.

Another problem of the 1965 Act arose out of a compromise made that was supposed to produce the opposite effect. In the creation of the original bill, it was intended to allow immigrants to come who had important skills and education. Some conservative Congressman who were working with the Democratic chairman obtained a concession at the last minute to give priority admission to immigrants already in the U.S. They thought by doing so that this would enable America to keep the influx of immigrants predominantly from the Anglo-Saxon, European peoples.

It could not have been known that in the years following, the number of Europeans wanting to immigrate to the United States suddenly dropped, and actually falling flat. The numbers of people from non-European countries suddenly rose, many wanting to come from countries where colonial rule had just ended. This brought new but well-educated immigrants from Latin America and Asia, who became established here and became the basis for bringing their family and relatives here.

Present-Day Implications

One thing about the immigration laws that were passed in 1965 is how fast it went from being a bill to becoming law. It only took nine months to be enacted. This certainly makes one wonder why new legislation has not been passed in the past decade to update the flawed system. Basically, many of the same systems and policies remain in effect since 1965.

Even though President Obama was the first black American to become President, not much has changed in immigration laws. This has resulted in a change in America from 85% white in 1965, to one-third of America being minority in 2009. At the present rate, it is expected that the nation will have a majority of non-whites by 2042.

The 1965 Act: Success or Failure?

Whether or not the 1965 Act was a success or failure depends on who you ask. Some say it has hurt the country to point to lost jobs for citizens and the homogenous nature of the country. Others who claim it was a success point to a younger America, a greater diversity, more talent, and an increased prosperity.

One major study performed recently by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine revealed that since 1965, many immigrants have integrated successfully into American society. Over time, their descendants have done quite well in terms of education, proficiency of language, earnings, and distribution among various occupations. In general, however, the immigrants and all of their descendants are still shown to be somewhat behind the ability of the native-born populace in these same areas.

Some groups of immigrants are actually higher in these areas than native-born Americans. People coming from India, in particular, are apt to have more education, more household income, and are even more likely to be employed than most Americans. Some other groups are similar, and may be on about an equal par with native-born citizens.

1952 US Immigration and Nationality Act (a.k.a the McCarran-Walter Act)

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which also was referred to as the McCarran-Walter Act, was intended to exclude certain groups of immigrants. It was aimed at preventing immigrants from entering the country who were sick, immoral, radical in their politics, or communist.

Those who were allowed to enter were immigrants who were willing to fit into the American culture – politically and socially. One of its main purposes was to prevent enemies of the U.S. from entering the country. It was considered to be the best way to protect the interests of America. Although vetoed by President Truman, there was enough support in Congress to make it become law.  

National Policy Beat in Brief

The influx of people at the America-Mexico border has been drastically increasing. In 2014, there was an increase of 52 percent of people arriving to gain entrance into the United States. In one month during that year, August, there was an incredible 9,790 people arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol. The totals for the year are about 69,000 unaccompanied children and another 68,000 family units.

Refugees are also pouring into the country from other places. President Obama raised the number of immigrants that can come to the U.S. from Syria. Many Cubans have come to America’s shores in Texas after the normalization of relations between the two countries. Under a previous agreement, Cubans are given a special status that is not given to people of any other country.

The Obama administration increased the number of refugees that will be permitted to enter America from 85,000 in 2016 to 100,000 in 2017. Many immigrants have been permitted, under the same administration, to apply for permanent residence, which would have reduced the large backlog. Since then, many immigrants who were granted permanent resident status have since been encouraged to apply for citizenship.

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