The long shadow of the 1965 immigration act

When the Act was passed immigrants accounted for about 5% of the population, down from 14.7% in 1910. Today, they account for 13.5%

By Daniel Tichenor in the Atlantic

This sweeping immigration reform is one of the crowning—and most controversial—achievements of the Johnson years. Even by the standards of Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society juggernaut, the legislation that eventually passed—the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, known as INA—was monumental. Although few historians believe the law’s champions anticipated just how profoundly it would change the U.S. demographic landscape, Johnson seemed to recognize that its passage was especially significant—enough so that he oversaw the staging of an elaborate signing ceremony at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Fifty years later, this sweeping immigration reform is being commemorated alongside the Voting Rights Act as one of the crowning—and most controversial—achievements of the hard-driving Johnson years.

The law ended a draconian national-origins quota system that was explicitly rooted in eugenicist notions of Northern and Western European superiority. Yet it took 20 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany for Congress to remove these barriers in American immigration law, showing how effectively Cold War nativists knitted together national-security and race-based fears…..The INA marked a monumental watershed in U.S. immigration policy, but this kind of moment will not be easy to reproduce.

Decades later, presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton pursued a cautious, reactive strategy toward immigration reform, one in which they responded opportunistically to congressional initiative on the issue. Some presidents have failed spectacularly, including Jimmy Carter, who pursued employer sanctions-amnesty legislation, and George W. Bush, who hoped for comprehensive immigration reform. Most recently, the incoming Obama administration shelved immigration reform when it became clear that nearly every Republican member of Congress (and some Democrats) would derail legislation. Obama eventually followed precedents set by Truman and Eisenhower, taking unilateral executive action to provide deportation relief and economic benefits to particular undocumented immigrants, most notably young people who entered the United States as children (and, later, their parents, a move currently blocked in the courts).

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