Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly didn’t do what it’s authors intended.
For as long as America has proclaimed itself a welcoming country of immigrants, policies have been in place to keep specific classes of people out. Naturalized citizenship was limited to “free white persons” until the 1860s, and Asians, for instance, weren’t allowed to be naturalized citizens until as late as the 1950s. From 1924 to 1965, immigration was controlled by ethnic quotas with per-country limits, which favored western Europe, and even certain countries in western Europe, and restricted almost everyone else.
The civil rights movement prompted a reassessment. In part to overcome the exclusion of southern and eastern Europeans, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, a bill that abolished the quota system and replaced it with a “preference system,” which took into consideration immigrants’ skills and family relationships with U.S. citizens or residents. The aim was to help reunite families, and to diversify the nation by making it easier for people outside of western Europe to come to America than ever before.
While the act was celebrated for decades, it’s clear now, 50 years later, that it also had unintended consequences. For example, by setting a cap on the number of immigrants from the Western Hemisphere that was actually significantly lower than the number of Mexicans who had been legally arriving in the U.S. at the time, it created a decades-long battle over illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border.
So what is the 1965 Immigration Act’s true legacy? Has it shaped America for the better? In advance of the Smithsonian/Zócalo “What It Means to Be American” event, “How Did the 1965 Immigration Act Change America?,” we asked five immigration experts: Has the 1965 Immigration Act stood the test of time? What have been its weaknesses? What have been its strengths?
No Act Can Control a World on the Move
In 1970, the U.S. population had the lowest proportion of foreign-born people in history: 4.7 percent. Today, that share is over 13 percent, nearing historic highs. Conventional wisdom has it that the coming of a “majority-minority” country, as California has been since 2000, is the result of the 1965 Immigration Act. But that is a fundamental misappraisal.
Most of the 40-plus million immigrants in the U.S. are here for reasons unrelated to the 1965 act. More than half of them hail from Latin America and the Caribbean, but the law in fact imposed numerical restrictions on Western Hemisphere immigration for the first time. After 1965, Europeans pretty much stopped coming, not because of the act’s provisions, but because former migrant-sending countries in postwar Europe had recovered economically and were importing workers. Many newcomers entered as Cold War refugees, and a quarter of the U.S. foreign-born population is now undocumented (about 40 percent are visa over-stayers from all over the world)—none of whom are here as a result of the act.
The act’s chief strength was its appeal to egalitarianism in the spirit of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and its repeal of the blatantly racist immigration policy that had been in place for decades. The shift from “national origin quotas” privileging northwest Europeans to family reunification and labor preferences privileging the highly skilled did open doors to immigrants from regions long barred, unintentionally ushering a “brain drain” from Asia, and also Africa and the Middle East (whose nationals are now the most educated groups in the U.S.).
This 50th anniversary is an occasion to reflect on the inherent limitations and unintended consequences of immigration laws, particularly when what is sought is nothing less than to control a world on the move. It is an illusion to pretend otherwise.
A More Flexible Approach is Needed
There is no doubt that the Immigration Act of 1965 has shaped the demographics of America, but not necessarily in the way or at the pace that was expected. Implementation of the act—which did away with the admissions policies that prevented immigrants from coming from most non-European countries—coincided with economic development and political independence in many countries, propelling people to leave their homes in search of higher education and better opportunities. At the same time, developments in transportation, technology, and communications altered information networks and travel patterns around the world. Through these combined processes, the numbers of Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans living in the United States dramatically increased.
During the same period as the 1965 act, the U.S. economy began what would become a decades-long shift from a manufacturing-dominant economy to one that is knowledge- and service-based, reshaping migration patterns as employers sought workers from abroad—so much so that the 1990 Immigration Act included new provisions for temporary high-skilled workers. Other than small allowances for agricultural workers, there were few visas for lower-skilled workers, even though they were in high demand as the U.S. population on the whole became more educated. An era of mass undocumented migration was the result.
Policy changes stemming from the 1965 act have made America more diverse, but one of its problems is that there is little flexibility built into the system. And it takes a long time—25 years or more, as history has shown—to overhaul. There is no simple way, for example, to increase or decrease the total number of green cards in a given year, or to adjust the number of visas for temporary workers.
A more flexible approach to respond to labor needs and humanitarian crises would improve the system and reduce undocumented migration.
Economic Migration is More Difficult
The biggest achievement of the Immigration Act of 1965 was the removal of de facto race and ethnicity restrictions from the immigration system. The 1965 act replaced a series of eugenics-inspired and labor-union-backed immigration limits from the previous Immigration Act of 1924 that intentionally discriminated against immigrants from outside of northwestern Europe. As a result, Asians were allowed to immigrate in large numbers for the first time since the 19th century.
The 1965 act also expanded the number of immigrants who could reunite with family that already had moved to America, allowing siblings, adult children, and parents to enter.
Despite these benefits, the act unfortunately also made economic immigration more difficult. The act followed on the heels of the end of the Bracero program—an important guest-worker visa that allowed about 5 million Mexicans to work temporarily in the United States. The 1965 act did not replace the Bracero program, nor did it create sufficient green cards to allow lower-skilled workers entry. Without a way for these lower-skilled economic migrants to enter lawfully, they began to enter unlawfully in large numbers—a legacy we are living with today.
The 1965 act was a mixed bag, but its failures stem from too many, rather than too few, regulations and restrictions on immigration.
The Act Needs an Update
The story of the 1965 Immigration Act is a story of unintended consequences. Who would have known 50 years ago that a family preference system intended to cement the dominance of European immigrants by giving preference to relatives of those already here and of U.S. citizens, most of whom were of European descent, would end up altering fundamentally the racial and ethnic composition of this country? Who would have known that the course of U.S. immigration would be so quickly tied to aspects outside this law, such as the elimination of the Bracero program, and wars, regional conflicts, and national security?
Today, as President Obama put it, “our immigration system is broken.” Of the foreign-born people in the U.S, a quarter are unauthorized immigrants. Of those granted legal permanent residence, more than 40 percent belong to children, spouses, and parents of U.S. citizens, whose entry is not subject to numerical limits like other categories of immigrants are; more than half already live here and are simply adjusting their status. The latest State Department visa bulletin shows that the waiting time to get a permanent visa for spouses and children of legal permanent residents from Mexico is close to two years. For other adults, it’s 10 years. Only about 15 percent of all immigrants are awarded legal permanent residence under employment preference visas. The 1965 act leaves out a good deal of talented people that wish to come to this country but have no immediate relatives to petition them nor have an employer to sponsor them.
To its credit, the act historically has kept the core elements of what was passed in 1965 and incorporated new laws over time to keep pace with a changing world, such as those introduced in 1976, 1978, 1980, 1985, and 1990. But now the need for new changes is evident. It has been an awful long time since the last one.
There’s More to Immigration Than Legislation
From a policy perspective, the authors of the 1965 Immigration Act, and the constituencies that supported it, completely miscalculated the law’s effects. The act anchored the migration system to family (re)unification, a provision intended to benefit those from the European countries by allowing immediate relatives of U.S. citizens to come without limits, while numerically setting caps on all other relatives. Moreover, with many northwestern European countries creating massive alternative immigration opportunities for nationals from economically weaker southern European countries, and the growth of the European economic community, Europeans’ interest in migration to the United States waned. This created an opening for citizens from Asia and elsewhere.
But not even the most Solomonic legislation could have anticipated how quickly America and the world would change. Economic and skills self-sufficiency are things of the past, if they ever existed, making opening foreign markets to U.S. goods and admitting many more skilled immigrants an imperative. Rules about how we are organized internally, and how we relate to the rest of the world and vice versa, are being rewritten constantly. Trade agreements, for instance, often include temporary immigration provisions, and openness typically leads to more contacts and more immigration of all types. Together, they are rewriting today’s (and tomorrow’s) immigration story.
But they are doing so by exception, through little-known, almost invisible, temporary migration routes, rather than legislation—just as we did for the two decades prior to the 1965 Act. In both instances, the formal, permanent rules could not accommodate change that reflected facts on the ground, such as allowing American soldiers to bring their foreign brides, and they were routinely bypassed. A new law that incorporates all these changes, serves U.S. economic interests directly by allowing flexible rules that admit highly skilled immigrants, and allows the timely (re)unification of immediate families of both U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and thus truly meets our commitment to families, is long overdue.