When Lyndon B. Johnson Shaped Immigration Law

When Lyndon B. Johnson Shaped Immigration Law

Why you should care

The United States can’t fix its immigration system without understanding why it’s broken.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and signed a law that few Americans knew or much cared about, then or now. But that law may be one of the most consequential pieces of 20th century legislation, the basis of the modern U.S. immigration system, which has diversified America — and forced millions into the shadows.

Yet in 1965, even President Johnson downplayed the law’s ramifications, remarking that the Immigration Act — ending discriminatory, country-specific quotas for migrants — “is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives.” Other proponents of the bill agreed, including a young Sen. Ted Kennedy, in his third year in office. Professor Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, insists that wasn’t just a put-on: Kennedy and other reformers, including the law’s sponsors, Rep. Emanuel Celler and Sen. Philip Hart, viewed the law as “pretty conservative,” she says.

They were wrong. Granted, it was merely the first step in a broader agenda to reform immigration laws (the only step that would be enacted), but the law did turn out to be pretty revolutionary all by itself. “I don’t think lawmakers could have predicted just how much immigration would grow in the late 20th century,” after the law passed, Lee tells OZY. And, unexpectedly, it brought in waves of “immigrants who are quite different both class-wise and in country of origin than previous pre-World War II immigration.”

The Immigration Act is honored as a great step forward for racial equality, in the same vein as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

At the time, reformers argued the new law would primarily benefit Southern and Eastern Europeans, important allies in America’s Cold War battle against communism. But it was Asians — who had been all but banned from migrating to the United States in the first half of the 20th century — who took the greatest advantage of the open door. The 1920s laws that created the quota system favored Western European immigrants — mostly Germans and Brits — and a xenophobic Congress passed laws in the early 20th century that explicitly excluded migrants from Asia. The Immigration Act of 1965 altered the flavor of America’s melting pot, introducing the communities of Filipino-Americans, Korean-Americans, Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans that are now integral to the country’s social fabric.

Today, the Immigration Act, when it is remembered at all, is honored as a great step forward for racial equality, in the same vein as its more famous ’60s brethren, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Backers argued that an immigration system that gave preferential treatment to white Northern Europeans was as archaic as segregated lunch counters. But there’s a darker side to the story. According to Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California Davis Law School and professor of Chicana/o studies, it also contributed to the sharp rise in illegal immigration from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. “For all of American history, there had been no specific limits on migration numbers for the Western Hemisphere,” explains Johnson, even when the rest of the world faced restrictive quotas. But the 1965 law put a cap on migration from the Western Hemisphere, as well as the Eastern Hemisphere. It also tightened the “labor certification” requirements that low- and medium-skilled workers needed to obtain employment visas. Johnson says congressional records from the time show these were concessions to immigration skeptics, made to get the bill passed.

Refugee children gazing at Statue of Liberty from railing of boat.

Refugee children gaze at the Statue of Liberty from behind the railing of a boat.

Source Jerry Cooke/Getty

Even though the rate of legal immigration from Mexico to the United States has grown since the 1960s, Johnson says it hasn’t come close to meeting the surging demand as America’s economy grew, either from migrants or from companies looking to employ migrant labor. And “the more you’re out of sync with labor demands, the more you’re going to have unlawful migration,” he says. That’s a lesson those involved in the immigration reform debate might want to take to heart. And it’s not the only one.

Johnson says the 1965 law also underscores the need for caution in today’s pro-reform movement as it weighs the inevitable trade-offs attached to any compromise bill. Immigration rights advocates must consider whether “the positives of immigration reform outweigh the negatives,” he says. “That’s a hard calculus.”

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