In 1963 President John F. Kennedy showed his support for immigration reform by declaring the quota system as “intolerable.” Later that year, America would tragically lose this beloved President to an assassin’s bullet but Congress would go on to follow his lead in passing the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. In many ways, even though JFK was gone when the bill passed into law, the nation owes its diversity to him. America’s current immigration standards had their birth in the 1965 legislation that he championed and was eventually signed into law at the foot of the Statue of Liberty by President Lyndon B. Johnson October 3, 1965.
This legislation was commonly called the the Hart-Celler Act after the Congressmen who authored the bill, Representative Emanuel Cellar, of New York, and Senator Philip Hart, of Michigan, with additional support of Senator Ted Kennedy, of Massachusetts, JFK’s brother. It sought to abolish the quota system that discriminated based on ethnic origin. Instead, the United States of America wanted an immigration policy that focused on reuniting families and importing a skilled labor class. This would be accomplished by showing preference to a resident immigrant’s family relations for clearance to enter the country. Quotas were replaced by a total annual immigrant cap of 170,000 but immigrants who were related to U.S. citizens or residents did not count toward this quota. For the first time, entire family units could uproot themselves and immigrate as a cohesive unit to the United States and join a long lost loved one who had paved the way for them.
As compassionate, family value motivated legislation, the sacrifice of separation became a thing of the past. Under the quota system, many immigrants made the painful decision to separate the family unit in order for at least one or two to emigrate to the New World and begin building a better life. Many would wait years for reunification. Joseph Errigo, who was the National Chairman of the Sons of Italy Committee on Immigration spoke before Congress and asked that the nation “abolish a system which is gradually becoming unpopular and inoperative.” At that time 249,583 Italians were on waiting lists for entry into the U.S.
Just as family members of immigrants already present in the country were shown preference for entry into the nation, professionals, scientists and notable artists did also. Skilled laborers were another desirable class of immigrant because at the time of the bill’s passage, there were not enough laborers in the U.S. to satisfy the needs of industry. Other preferred classes of immigrants who were widely accepted and not counted toward the quota were “special immigrants”. And what made a person so “special”? If you were born in an “independent” nation of the Western hemisphere, were a minister or had been employed by the U.S. government while living in another country, you could count on an open door policy to enter the United States. Restrictions still existed for Communist immigrants, but were considerably relaxed when compared to the past when a Communist couldn’t even get a foot in the door and often got a boot in the ass out the door.
Humanitarianism was definitely at play in this legislative effort to reunite families as the United States opened up the nation’s borders to the Western Hemisphere, as well as Asian and African countries. This would eventually result in the growth of an unexpected ethnic diversity in the United States. Historically, citizenship had been restricted as much as possible to white Europeans. Naturalization had, in the past, been kept to a minimum among the non-white races. The game changing legislative reforms of 1965 made it possible for this gringa’s Caveman to be here today.
People from Greece, Poland, Portugal and Italy had been earnestly seeking entry into the United States. The quota system was a significant hindrance for such immigrant hopefuls. Thanks to the many Americans who stood up for racial equality, the discriminatory practice of immigration quotas based on ethnic origin became a thing of the past. Gone were the days of preferential treatment toward Northern Europeans when it came to immigration. Nativism and xenophobia were headed out the door right on the heels of state mandated segregation.
Did the framers of this legislation realize the significance of what they were creating? Did they have any idea how much change this would bring about? Were they truly equality minded individuals who were seeking to reflect the values of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s in immigration reform? Were the great floods of immigrants from all over the globe an unexpected surprise? Perhaps an unwelcome surprise? Was there disappointment as the American population increased with large numbers of newcomers who were not as well-educated as the existent population? Was the nation socially evolving and becoming less discriminatory toward other races and ethnicities? The gringa has so many questions.
The movers and shakers of the civil rights movement were the forward-thinkers who kept the country moving along in the direction of social evolution. The first civil rights laws since Reconstruction were passed in 1957, again in 1960, then two more bills, one in 1964 and another in 1965. As state and local authorities responded in kind with their own new laws and ordinances designed to stamp out any practice of racism by making such acts illegal, immigration reform then seems a natural extension of the social change that was sweeping across the nation. Representative Philip Burton of California is recorded as stating to Congress, “Just as we sought to eliminate discrimination in our land through the Civil Rights Act, today we seek by phasing out the national origins quota system to eliminate discrimination in immigration to this nation composed of the descendants of immigrants.” The voices of the civil rights movement had been heard and the nation delivered results yet again with immigration reform.
There is also evidence of an awakening of humanitarianism within America on a scale unseen in the past. As Africa and Asia were experiencing colonization from powerhouses such as the Soviet Union, resulting instabilities created international refugee crises. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey recognized that without immigration reform, it would not be possible to offer relief to these desperate people therefore the nation would be unable to have “the respect of people all around the world”.
Foreign policy was also a critical factor in passing sweeping changes for immigration laws. The country wanted the good will of other nations. This could very well have been in response to the Latin American countries, particularly Mexico, being fed up with the nation’s racist and discriminatory behavior and exploitation of their people as an imported labor class. It could also have been the U.S. reacting to Cold War propaganda that cast the U.S. in the light of Nazism specifically due to its race based immigration system. It also seems the nation had finally learned its lesson that discriminatory immigration policies could inflame passions against the country. There were those in the nation that finally seemed to put two and two together and think, just perhaps, Japanese militarism against America in World War II might have been incited by passions in Japan that were stinging from the racist exclusionary policy of 1924.
Many in the nation were rather unimpressed with the bill’s significance. When the legislation finally became law in October of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson said that the immigration reform was “not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions… It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power.” Considering how dramatically the ethnic fabric of the country has changed in the fifty years since this legislation, I believe he grossly underestimated the power of this immigration reform to bring about significant change.
The reality of the bill, despite Johnson’s opinion, is that it was a drastic change from the past. The effect would be immediate and the results long-lasting. Within the first five years after the bill was enacted, refugees from war ravaged countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia would increase nearly four times their immigration total prior to the immigration reform. As people suffered poverty and political oppression, they poured into the country from places like Cuba and Eastern Europe. Within the first thirty years after passage of the 1965 legislation, the number of immigrants into the U.S. tripled as compared to the numbers who entered the country in the thirty years prior to the new laws. Within thirty-five years, the largest group of immigrants was no longer the white Europeans, but, instead, were the people of Mexico, the Philippines, Korea, the Dominican Republic, India, Cuba and Vietnam. In 1965, at the time of this bill’s passage, eighty-five percent of the United States population was white. By the year 2009, about sixty percent of the population was white. Census projections expect that by the year 2042, whites will no longer be the majority ethnic class of the American population. President Johnson couldn’t have been more wrong. The status quo of the American population was to become vastly changed.
Representative Cellar, who sponsored the bill, sat in the same camp as Johnson. He was not entirely convinced that the results of this legislation would significantly change the ethnic face of the nation. Boy, did he underestimate his own legacy. Even Attorney General Robert Kennedy was unprepared for the reality that was to come. He spoke to House immigration subcommittee members and told them, regarding Asian immigrants “… immigrants would come the first year, but we do not expect that there would be any great influx after that.” Brother Teddy seemed to feel the same way when he said, “First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually… It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society…” Secretary of State Dean Rusk was under the impression that only about 8,000 immigrants should be expected from India. He was only off by about 20,000. Dead wrong, these guys were just dead wrong.
A few politicians, however, could smell the winds of change all over the bill. Representative William Mill of New York penned these thoughts, “… the number of immigrants next year will increase threefold and in subsequent years will increase even more…” He was pretty close to the truth, it just took a little longer to fulfill his prediction.
In New Jersey, Myra C. Hacker, Vice President of the New Jersey Coalition, sounded off about the age old concerns of immigrants arriving, stealing jobs and lowering wages. Testifying before the Senate immigration subcommittee hearing, she said, “We should remember that people accustomed to such marginal existence in their own land will… lower our wage and living standards, disrupt our cultural patterns…” Nothing new under the sun, a fear-mongerer fearing the unknown people that haven’t even arrived yet.
Although nothing created by man can be perfect, this piece of legislation has withstood the test of time and is still, excepting a few changes, the immigration policy of the United States now. The gringa must admit that one of the most important sources of happiness in life, her beloved Caveman, can be traced back to October 3, 1965. I wasn’t even born yet, but the wheels were already in motion for my dreams to come true. Funny how life works like that.
Photo credit: behindthescenes.nyhistory.org