National Security & Defense

50 Years of Immigration’s Unintended Consequences

Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act into law, October 5, 1965. (LBK Library)
Were backers of the 1965 immigration law lying or just blinded by good intentions?

Fifty years ago Saturday, Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 into law. Though it has been modified since then, the bill — known as the Hart-Celler Act after its sponsors — established the paradigm for today’s immigration system.

All the supporters’ confident claims about the bill’s impact were proven incorrect, some within just a few years. President Johnson said, “This bill we sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not restructure the shape of our daily lives.” Attorney General Robert Kennedy wrote that, “It would increase the amount of authorized immigration by only a fraction.” Senator Claiborne Pell said, “Contrary to the opinions of some of the misinformed, this legislation does not open the floodgates.”

Senator Ted Kennedy’s assurances are so absurdly off-base that they should be carved into the marble of the U.S. Capitol as a caution to anyone making claims about the future effects of grand legislation on any subject:

The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.

As my colleague Jerry Kammer writes in a new paper on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 law, as early as 1968 “the New York Times reported that ‘the extent of the change’ in immigration because of the new law had surprised nearly everyone.” The number of green cards issued in 1968, when the law fully took effect, was already more than 50 percent higher than in 1965; it’s more than doubled again since then.

In my more uncharitable moods, I think they were simply lying — in Senator Kennedy’s case, it would hardly be the first or last time. But that’s not usually the way people work. The bill’s sponsors must really have believed their own press releases.

Even if some of them had doubts, they were fixated on ending the old national-origins quota system that gave preference to immigrants from northern and western Europe. The system, first put in place in the 1920s, stood at odds with the 1960s’ civil-rights efforts and was seen as putting us at a disadvantage in our competition with the Soviet Union to win hearts and minds in the emerging third world.

Hart-Celler’s supporters were so eager to get rid of a failed system that they didn’t seriously consider concerns that their preferred solution might not work as intended.

Hart-Celler’s supporters were so eager to get rid of a failed system that they didn’t seriously consider concerns that their preferred solution might not work as intended. As Kammer said in a panel discussion this week, the bill’s supporters “wanted to repeal something that they thought was unjust. . . . Everything else was secondary.”

This same unconcern with consequences has marked the more recent efforts at “comprehensive immigration reform.” Supporters of the 2006–07 McCain-Kennedy drive for amnesty and the 2013 Schumer-Rubio effort — which is to say Presidents Bush and Obama, almost all the Democrats in Congress, and many of the Republicans — saw (and see) granting legal status to illegal aliens as the overriding goal, to which everything else is secondary. Their reasons are different, of course. Democrats have convinced themselves that it’s a moral imperative, while establishment Republicans have convinced themselves that they can boost their share of the Hispanic vote if only the issue of illegal immigration would go away. They’re wrong in both cases, but what matters is that they believe they’re right.

Everything in those bills served the imperative of amnesty. Need corporate interests to back amnesty? Give them massive increases in immigration and “temporary” workers. Republican lawmakers need political protection from the yokels who sent them to Congress? Make lots of promises about increased enforcement. Dick Jones’s quote from Robocop — “Who cares if it worked or not?” — is too cynical to describe the conscious thoughts of most amnesty proponents, but it does capture the end result. So long as such measures help drag amnesty — the paramount good — over the legislative finish line, amnesty supporters assure themselves that the rest will all work out in the end.

But there’s no reason for us to believe them. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Hart-Celler Act — having also been duped by the false assurances of the amnesty bill whose 30th anniversary is next year — we must reject the indifference to consequences that has marked half a century of immigration policymaking.


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