Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
On October 3, 1965, President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act. The Hart-Celler Act amended the Immigration & Nationality Act to abolish the discriminatory national-origin quotas that had been in place since the 1920s. The Hart-Celler Act instead put a preference system that focused on individuals’ family ties and skills in its place. This opened up the US to immigrants of African and Asian descent, allowing non-Europeans to experience the American dream.
The year 1965 is often cited as a turning point in the history of US immigration, but what happened in the ensuing years is not well understood. Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act passed in that year repealed the national origins quotas, which had been enacted during the 1920s in a deliberate attempt to limit the entry of Southern and Eastern European immigrants—or more specifically Jews from the Russian Pale and Catholics from Poland and Italy, groups at the time deemed “unassimilable.” The quotas supplemented prohibitions already in place that effectively banned the entry of Asians and Africans.
The 1965 amendments were intended to purge immigration law of its racist legacy by replacing the old quotas with a new system that allocated residence visas according to a neutral preference system based on family reunification and labor force needs. The new system is widely credited with having sparked a shift in the composition of immigration away from Europe toward Asia and Latin America, along with a substantial increase in the number of immigrants.
Indeed, after 1965 the number of immigrants entering the country did increase, and the flows did come to be dominated by Asians and Latin Americans. Although the amendments may have opened the door to greater immigration from Asia, however, the surge in immigration from Latin America occurred in spite of rather than because of the new system. Countries in the Western Hemisphere had never been included in the national origins quotas, nor was the entry of their residents prohibited as that of Africans and Asians had been. Indeed, before 1965 there were no numerical limits at all on immigration from Latin America or the Caribbean, only qualitative restrictions.
The 1965 amendments changed all that, imposing an annual cap of 120,000 on entries from the Western Hemisphere. Subsequent amendments further limited immigration from the region by limiting the number of residence visas for any single country to just 20,000 per year (in 1976), folding the separate hemispheric caps into a worldwide ceiling of 290,000 visas (in 1978), and then reducing the ceiling to 270,000 visas (in 1980).
Over time the relative openness or restrictiveness of US policies is more strongly shaped by prevailing economic circumstances and political ideologies. In the United States, especially, immigrants carry significant symbolic weight in the narrative of American peoplehood, and how they are depicted in the media, portrayed by politicians, and treated by legislators probably reveals more about America’s aspirations and hopes — and its fears and insecurities — than anything to do with immigration itself.
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