President Johnson and the 1965 immigration reforms

Daniel Teichnor writes in the Atlantic about the 1965 legislation which opened up American immigration. Below are some excerpts from his article:

Immigration is one of the most dangerous issues in American politics… Nearly every new American president of the modern era has viewed the nation’s immigration policies as deeply flawed…. yet, President Lyndon Johnson’s battle for reform underscores the way immigration policy can be a potent political tool and offers a model for future presidents.

He ultimately expended far more political energy on this issue than anyone on his team anticipated. Johnson recognized that failing to spearhead an immigration overhaul would significantly undercut his civil-rights, social-justice, and geopolitical goals.

When John Kennedy took office in 1961, the dominant immigration law was the highly restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, heavily biased towards countries of origin represented in the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.

Democrats were deeply divided between southern conservatives opposed to any loosening of restrictions and northern liberals committed to dismantling racist national-origins quotas that reserved about 70% of visas for immigrants from just three countries: Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany. While Kennedy described immigration reform as “the most urgent and fundamental” item on his New Frontier agenda, he got nowhere on plans to alter U.S. immigration law due to potent opposition from conservative Democrats, who controlled the immigration subcommittees of both houses…. Immigration restrictions were defended in the name of national security, job protection, and ethnic and racial hierarchy

In January, 1964, President Johnson induced Senator James Eastland, an immigration reform opponent, to hand his chairmanship of the key Senate committee over to Ted Kennedy. Michael Feighan, a fierce reform opponent and chair of the key House committee, fought the administration but eventually decided to negotiate. Curiously, Feighan forced the Johnson to weaken a skills-based plan because he thought by doing so Northern Europeans would dominate immigration through family reunification provisions.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, or the Hart-Celler Act, was enacted by Congress on October 3, 1965. It abolished the national origins quota system, and introduced a system based partly on family, partly on skills. Between 1951 and 1960, new immigrants averaged about 220,000 a year. By 1981 to 1990, they averaged about 700,000 a year.

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