This year, America observes the fiftieth anniversary of many transformative events. Some are to be celebrated; others are to be mourned. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama celebrated the march in Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. This year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, the landing of the first combat troops in Vietnam, and the signing of the Social Security Act Amendments. Yet in the midst of these anniversaries, it is important to remember an event that transformed America and affected the lives of many around the world: the signing of the most significant immigration law in US history, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.
Promoted by the then–freshmen senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, the bill ended up receiving more congressional support from Republicans (87 percent) than Democrats (74 percent)—a fact reflecting a very different partisan reality between then and now. The bill passed largely because its proponents claimed, in the words of Senator Kennedy, that “the ethnic mix of this country” would not be “upset” by its passage. Just before its signing, President Lyndon B. Johnson felt the need to reassure any doubters: “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill,” he said. “It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power. Yet it is still one of the most important acts of this Congress and of this administration.”
And so the bill was signed on October 3, 1965, on a sunny day in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. President Johnson was absolutely right that the law was one of the most important acts of that Congress and administration. But he and all its proponents were completely off as far as the consequences of the law. The ethnic mix of this country has been completely transformed and the wealth and power of this country has soared as a result.
Up until 1952, almost every immigration law enacted in the United States was written to favor white Protestants of European descent to the exclusion of virtually all other groups. The first immigration law in America, passed in 1790, allowed only “free white persons of good character” to become citizens. It took another eighty years before “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” would be granted citizenship and another ninety-five years before a federal law allowed them to exercise their right to vote. Before 1965, laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the Naturalization Act (1906), the “Asiatic Barred Zone Act” (1917), and the National Origin Act (1924) were enacted to bar non-European immigrants. It was not until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 that race was eliminated as a reason for exclusion, and not until 1965 that the nationality quota system, which benefited northern Europeans, was abolished. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 allowed immigration based on family reunification and skills. In other words, US citizens could sponsor their relatives to immigrate to the US and individuals with special skills in such fields as science, medicine, and technology could also apply to immigrate.
The most significant consequence of this law was the skill, talent, and sheer brain-power that it brought to the country. President Johnson couldn’t have been more wrong: The strength and wealth of the nation were greatly increased by the influx of talented, hard-working immigrants who were allowed to enter. And while their arrival on these shores caused a serious brain drain in other countries, it benefited the United States immensely.
Today there is hardly anyone in America (or, arguably, in the world) whose life has not been touched by post-1965 immigrants. HIV-positive patients around the world can manage the virus through anti-retroviral therapy thanks to the work of Dr. David Ho, an immigrant from Taiwan who was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1996 because of his pioneering work on HIV/AIDS. Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer of Microsoft, was born in India. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, immigrated from the Soviet Union because his parents who were scientists. Jerry Yang (co-founder of Yahoo.com), Steve Chen (co-founder of YouTube), and the entire founding board of PayPal (including Elon Musk, Luke Nosek, Ken Howery, Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, and Yu Pan)—this group of entrepreneurs went on to start companies such as Tesla Motors, LinkedIn, Palantir Technologies, SpaceX, YouTube, Yelp, and Yammer. Fifty years ago, it would have been illegal for some of them to immigrate to the United States, but today they lead some of the most profitable and influential companies in America.
Since the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1965, only one significant piece of immigration legislation has been passed: the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Signed into law by Ronald Reagan, it granted legal status to anyone who had entered the country before 1982 as well as to migrant farm workers. But in the last three decades, there has been no major legislation on immigration, even though the country and the world have changed dramatically. As the nation prepares to enter a new round of debates on immigration reform, it behooves Americans to reflect on how different their country, and the wider world, would be if that bill had not become law fifty years ago.
Tony Tian-Ren Lin, Ph.D., is a Research Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.
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