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55 Years Later: A Comprehensive Look at the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

4 min read

On October 3, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a.k.a. the Hart-Cellar Act. The law paved the way for many of today’s largest immigrant groups to come to the United States for better lives. For the South Asian community, it marked the beginning of a decades-long wave of immigration from the Indian subcontinent to the U.S. – a wave that has yet to die down. While the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 enabled greater immigration from South Asia, it also inadvertently contributed to major issues of immigration today. To evaluate the law comprehensively and holistically, let’s do a deeper dive into the historical context of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and its implications for contemporary immigration.

[Read Related: ‘Little America’ Shows 8 Real, Complex & Endearing Stories of Immigration Worth Watching]

What was the state of immigration in the U.S. pre-1965?

In 1924, the U.S. government put in place the Immigration Act of 1924, a.k.a. the Johnson-Reed Act, which imposed a national-origins quota system to ensure the U.S. population remained homogeneously European – specifically, Anglo-Saxon. This law determined from which countries people would be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. by evaluating the 1890 national census and accrediting immigration visas to 2% of the total number of people of each nationality in the U.S. 

Consequently, the Immigration Act of 1924 excluded immigrants from Asia. Despite Asian people not being counted in the official U.S. population count, immigrants from Asia had been coming to the U.S. since the 1800s to serve American labor needs. Beginning in the 1850s, Chinese laborers migrated to the U.S. to work in the gold mines, agriculture, and factories. In the late 1800s, Sikhs from India started to arrive to the U.S. and settled on the west coast to build America’s railroads. The decision to exclude Asian people from the Immigration Act of 1924 was a racist one; it dismissed the humanity of these people who were essential to the fabric of America. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 attempted to correct this wrongdoing, but it still only allowed 2,000 immigrants per year from the entire continent of Asia to immigrate to the U.S.

The Johnson-Reed Act also intentionally excluded the Western hemisphere from the national-origins quota system to meet labor needs through the Bracero Program. This essentially created a loophole which allowed millions of Mexican workers to migrate to the U.S. as laborers. The program was active from 1942 to 1964, during which 4.6 million Mexican laborers traversed the U.S.-Mexico border to work in agricultural jobs. The implementation of the Bracero Program draws to light the fickle and inherently constructed nature of the U.S.-Mexico border. 

What is the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965?

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 emerged at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and owes its existence to Black and African-American activists. Signed into law in 1965, it was not effective until June 30, 1968. The Hart-Cellar Act abolished the national-origins quota system and replaced it with a preference system based on immigrants’ familial relationships with U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. It allocated no more than 170,000 visas to immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere and restricted the number of visas per country-of-origin to 20,000. It placed quotas on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere for the first time, capping the total number of visas from Canada, Central and South America at 120,000. It also for the first time viewed Asian immigrants equally in a legal context, as quotas were the same for Asian countries as for European countries. 

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was historic because it sought to dismantle the racist rhetoric in previous immigration laws by encouraging immigration from more than just Europe. It did so by prioritizing family reunification, which enabled large numbers of immigrants to come from countries that were recovering from colonialism, e.g., countries in South Asia. Once naturalized, immigrants were able to sponsor relatives to also immigrate to the U.S. Immediate relatives were exempt from the numerical restrictions imposed by the law, allowing immigration numbers to flourish.

[Read Related: 7 Effective Ways to Help Fight for Immigrant Rights]

How has the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 impacted trends in immigration?

The Hart-Cellar Act allowed the foreign-born population in the U.S. to rise exponentially. From 1965 to 2015, the foreign-born population rose from 9.6 million to 45 million. Most of the foreign-born population immigrated from Asia and Latin America, lowering the percentage of non-Hispanic white individuals from 84% of the population in 1965 to 62% of the total population in 2015. By 2055, Asian immigrants are expected to make up the largest share of the foreign-born population, comprising 38% of the total foreign-born population.

The Hart-Cellar Act’s restriction on immigration from the Western Hemisphere is important to understanding the constructed nature of borders today. When the law was enacted, Mexico was suddenly expected to adhere to the 20,000 visas per country rule, and free migration to the U.S. from Latin America was no longer possible. This change in immigration law jeopardized the foundations that the historically transnationally community of Mexican migrant workers had built in the U.S. during the Bracero Program. To preserve these connections, migrant workers continued to cross the border. Thus, the impact of the Hart-Cellar Act partially explains the rise of undocumented immigration in the late 1960s onwards when borders became more concrete.

While the Hart-Cellar Act worked to end racist practices, it was discriminatory in other ways. It contained a provision barring LGBTQ+ individuals from immigrating to the U.S. Additionally, its commitment to treating all countries equally was counterintuitive in some ways because it disregarded that some countries, like India and China, have much larger populations than countries like Belgium and that they thus would require a larger cap. Consequently, immigrants from India, China, Mexico and the Philippines have some of the longest backlogs and waiting times to enter the U.S. 

[Read Related: ‘You Clap For Me Now’: Will This Video Turn the Tide on How we View U.K. Immigrants?]

Looking to the future

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was fundamental to increasing people of color’s visibility in the United States. But to this day, racist rhetoric shapes the American immigration system. Immigrants with college degrees are favored over those without them, as immigrants are seen as commodities to the American economy. Undocumented immigration continues because of how difficult it is for those from the heavily populated Global South to acquire a visa to come to the United States. Immigrants from wealthier backgrounds find it easier to come to the U.S. than refugees or those with no higher education. Within the South Asian community, caste and class come into play. These variables call into question the success of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. As immigrant rights are jeopardized, the South Asian community must stand in solidarity with other immigrant communities to demand immigration reform and an end to all discriminatory practices in the American legal system.

For more on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and its implications, click here.

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