America’s “Facelift” Turns 50

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Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 – America’s facelift turns 50
This past weekend marked the 50thanniversary of the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act. Then-President Lyndon Johnson, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965, signed legislation that forever changed the demographics of our nation of immigrants.  This act abolished the national origin quota system, under which immigrants were chosen on the basis of their race and ancestry. It established the current system which is based on family unification and attracting skilled labor and talent to the U.S.

The 1960s was a turbulent time in U.S. history, and it is argued that the Civil Rights movement is what ultimately strengthened calls to reform U.S. immigration law. The national origins quota which was in place since the 1920s was viewed by many as inherently discriminatory. It set aside tens of thousands of visas each year for immigrants Northern and Western Europe, while the rest of the world was allocated 100 slots each.  In a speech President John F. Kennedy gave in 1963, he called the quota immigration policy “nearly intolerable”.  

With the number of immigrants rising, it shouldn’t be surprising then that abolishing the quota system would drastically change the landscape of the United States. But shockingly – the results were not anticipated by the members of Congress who debated the legislation or by President Johnson himself. They viewed the new legislation to a more open system as more a matter of principal than actual change – a demonstration that our government can be true to what it says American values are, in light of a climate of anti-discrimination movements.  

Apparently the government’s egalitarianism only went so far. Many in Congress had argued that little would change because the measure gave preference to relatives of immigrants already in America. Another provision gave preference to professionals with skills in short supply in the United States.  But what they must have not considered at the time was if you’re planning on reforming immigration laws to allow in more German physicians, this will open the door to more Indian physicians as well. Indeed, on signing the act into law in October 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated that the act “is 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.”

In reality, and with the benefit of hindsight, the passage of the INA completely changed the face of America. It opened the doors to people from all nations, prohibiting discrimination based on national origin. In theory, immigrants from Asia and Africa now had the same chances to immigrate to the U.S. as immigrants from Western Europe.

Since then, according to Pew Research Center, the nation’s foreign-born population has grown from 9.6 million in 1965 to 45 million this year, with about half coming from Latin America and a quarter from Asia. Today, as a direct result of this 1965 policy, the nation’s population was one-third minority in 2009, and is on track for a nonwhite majority by 2042.

If you find yourself wondering what the big deal was and why it was so important to eliminate national quotas that favored western European countries, then contemplate the fact that within a few months of each other, both the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Civil Rights Act(1964) were also both passed. There is no doubting that these were all tremendous achievements in America’s history of civil rights, and yet there is still a lot of progress to be had. So when we sit down to debate the nation’s illegal immigration problem, let’s also take a moment to consider our current legal immigration laws – how far they’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.
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Hiba Ghalib

Associate Attorney

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