News Release

50th Anniversary of Immigration Overhaul: How it Opened and Closed Border


Philip Wolgin at the Center for American Progress writes: “Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in New York City and signed into law the most sweeping U.S. immigration reform to date — The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 [also known as the Hart-Celler Act].”

MAE NGAI, mn53 at
Ngai is professor of history at Columbia University. Her books include Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. The Nation recently published her piece: “This Is How Immigration Reform Happened 50 Years Ago. It Can Happen Again,” which states: “When Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act, he hailed it as a milestone for civil rights — and, in many ways, it was. The signal achievement of the act was to abolish the noxious quota system, in effect since 1924, which numerically restricted immigration and allocated visas for permanent residents (green cards) according to national origin and race. The quota structure favored immigration from Northern and Western Europe, restricted it from Eastern and Southern Europe, and excluded Asians altogether. The 1965 immigration act got rid of this blatantly racist system and replaced it with one based on individual qualifications, giving preference to those with skills and those with family members in the United States. To further make the system fair, it set a uniform cap on all countries at 7 percent of the annual total. …

“Moreover, for all its liberal intentions, Hart-Celler was decidedly illiberal in crucial respects: It imposed numerical limits on the countries of the Western Hemisphere, which previously had no such quotas. At the same time, it subjected all countries to the same maximum limit of 20,000 new admissions a year (when Congress raised the overall ceiling by 40 percent in 1990, the country cap went up to just 26,500). Treating Mexico and India ‘equally’ with, say, New Zealand and Belgium reflected the civil-rights era’s emphasis on abstract, formal equality. However, it also guaranteed that a significant portion of Mexican immigration would be unauthorized, because ongoing labor-market demands far exceeded legal avenues for entry.”