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Immigration Act Turns 50 Time to Reform It


The 1965 Immigration Act increased both the number and the diversity of immigrants

This month marks the 50th Anniversary of the Immigration Act of 1965. While this law is what we commonly call “our broken immigration system,” at the time it was passed it was an important and progressive step forward. The problem is, it was designed for the way the world was in 1965, not the way it is in 2015.

America had a virtually open door policy on immigration for its first hundred years. Of course, some groups might not want to come because they would face specials dangers here. For example, black immigrants might find themselves kidnapped and sent South to be sold into slavery up until 1865.

By the 1880s, the open border began to close, with large racial barriers being the most salient feature. First, the Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and then other restrictions on Asian immigration were put into place.  Then, in 1924 a comprehensive immigration law was put into place that also cut off immigration from nearly all of the world except for France, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and a few other Northern European countries. The focus of this expansion of exclusion was keeping Eastern Europeans, Italians, Greeks, and particularly Jews out.

The 1965 Immigration Act, for all of its flaws, ended the flagrant racial discrimination in America’s immigration system. If your family legally immigrated to the United States since 1965 and is not originally from Northern Europe, the odds are they were helped in coming here by the half-century old law.

According to research from the Pew Center, there are 43 million people living in the United States today who entered under the 1965 Immigration Act and its progeny. Immigrants made up only 5% of the population before the Act went into effect, now they are almost 14%. This has made the United States a much more multicultural place. In 1965, only 4% of the population was Latino and 1% was Asian. Now, the country is 18% Latino and 6% Asian.

The Immigration Act of 1965 was most successful in reforming many of the racial restrictions on immigration and in allowing larger numbers of new immigrants into the United States. It reversed the trend of the previous five decades towards increasing restrictionism. It accomplished this transformation over the opposition of a hide-bound anti-immigrant lobby that founded its platform on white supremacy.

Anti-immigrant activists of the 1960s included many who believed that only Northern European “cultures” were compatible with Americanism. The fact that one Northern European culture, German, had been dominated by the Nazis just two decades earlier was ignored.

The racism in American immigration policy was an embarrassment during the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union for allies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The U.S. had a difficult time convincing nonwhite peoples that it was sympathetic to their interests when its laws excluded them from immigrating here.

The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 was also a factor in changing the immigration laws. Kennedy had written a book describing the United States as “a nation of immigrants” and he took on the mantle of the excluded immigrant rising to the heights of American achievement.  His assassination in 1963 led Congress to take up immigration reform as an element in establishing his liberal legacy. His brother Teddy Kennedy would sponsor the reform bill in the Senate.

As marked an achievement as the 1965 Act was, it was never meant to be the final word on immigration. Ted Kennedy rose to lead the Senate Immigration Subcommittee and repeatedly offered modifications to the 1965 Act to improve its functioning. Refugee protections were incorporated into it in 1980, and a modernized employment-based immigration system was created in 1990 that made the United States a welcoming place for the immigrants that helped create the high tech sector of our economy.

By 2000, though, the continued effectiveness of the 1965 Act was in question. Kennedy and others who had supported the original act called for a comprehensive overhaul of the law. While the Act had achieved much, it did not take into account changes in the economy like the growing service sector which encouraged expanding undocumented immigration.

Today, the 1965 Act is like a once-fine highway that has not been repaved in two decades and which needs to be replaced by a modern pathway for the 21st Century. 

Pat Young is an attorney with the Central American Refugee Center CARECEN on LOng Island and professor of immigration law at Hofstra Law School.


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