“This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions,” President Lyndon Johnson said at the signing ceremony of the Immigration and Nationality Act fifty years ago today.
“It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power.”
Johnson’s statement couldn’t have been more wrong, and maybe knew this at the time. After all, he was a pretty savvy politician. He might have downplayed the significance of the bill in order to garner support for it, or at least ease the fears of white America that they would one day face a much more diverse America.
Well, here we are.
A little history: by the 1960s Greeks, Poles, Portuguese and Italians were complaining that immigration quotas discriminated against them in favor of Western Europeans. The Democratic Party took up their cause, led by President John F. Kennedy, who called the system of quotas “intolerable.”
After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson took up the cause and signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act after it sailed through Congress (Johnson, a power player, had to do some arm twisting). The Act was written to level the playing field and give an equal chance for newcomers from every corner of the world.
A 2006 NPR piece suggests that it was Congress that was short-sighted in not seeing the potential power of the Act. There was a provision gave preference to professionals with skills in short supply in the United States.
“Congress was saying in its debates, ‘We need to open the door for some more British doctors, some more German engineers,’” Klineberg says. “It never occurred to anyone, literally, that there were going to be African doctors, Indian engineers, Chinese computer programmers who’d be able, for the first time in the 20th century, to immigrate to America.”
America’s foreign-born population now numbers nearly 41 million, or around 13 percent of the total population, not far off the historical high of nearly 15 percent in 1890. But in 1890 the vast majority of immigrants were from Europe, as they were for centuries, and they settled in New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago.
Since 1965 immigration from Latin America and Asia has grown enormously, and they are just as likely to settle in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Houston as they are in Boston. Perhaps more likely.
No group has benefited more from the ’65 Act than Asian immigrants, as a commentator from Zocalo Public Square points out.
After decades of being separated from loved ones, Asian immigrants sponsored family members in such large numbers that the 1965 Act was nicknamed the “brothers and sisters act.” Many are also recruited to work in certain industries, such as the high-tech sector. Asian immigrants receive about three quarters of H-1B visas granted to highly skilled “guest workers” today, and Chinese are now the single largest group of new arrivals coming into the country.
On the other hand, the new restrictions on immigration from the Western Hemisphere dramatically reduced other immigrants’ access to the United States. The 20,000 spots granted to Mexico were just a fraction of the more than 400,000 immigrants and temporary workers who had been admitted into the U.S. each year from Mexico in the decade prior to 1965. Mexicans could still apply for admission through the family reunification clause, but demand outweighed supply. The waiting list for visas grew quickly and was soon years-long for applications of Mexican citizens. Nowadays critics of unauthorized immigration complain that immigrants need to stand in “line” like others, without necessarily acknowledging that the line is almost 4.5 million people long.
That writer also points out the contradictory legacy of the Act, which remains the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy today. While immigration is inclusive for some today, it remains more exclusionary for others and that we have not yet achieved President Johnson’s goal of establishing an immigration law that helps the United States create “a world without war [and] a world made safe for diversity, in which all men, goods, and ideas can freely move across every border and every boundary.”