Politics & Policy

Half a Century of Barely Controlled Immigration

(Jerry Coli/Dreamstime)
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed selectivity from the process.

This week marks a big anniversary for those who think mass immigration is an inevitability, destined to occur like plate tectonics. Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Immigration and Nationality Act, a piece of legislation that would revolutionize America’s immigration system from one that was conscious and selective about whom we let in to the barely governable system we have today. The bill’s drafters, however, never expected or intended such a dramatic change, and the fact that President Johnson left out all mention of the act in his memoirs isn’t surprising.

Before 1965, our immigration system emphasized cultural assimilation and tight labor markets. In 1921, Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Quota Acts, a conscious choice of the American public to halt the 1880-1920 “Great Wave” of eastern and southern European immigration (which averaged 600,000 annually). The move limited a nationality’s allotment of immigrant visas according to that nationality’s proportion of America’s population at the turn of the century. Two-thirds of a new 160,000-visa cap would go annually to Britain, Ireland, and Germany, the settler-stock and first-immigration-wave nations. On top of the concern that immigration should mirror the makeup of the nation, the system was designed to emphasize sought-after skills, with two-thirds of all the spots going to people “urgently needed in the United States.”

RELATED: 50 Years of Immigration’s Unintended Consequences

Rebutting knee-jerk allegations that such a system was “nativist,” former New Republic editor Michael Lind offers the simple truism that “concerns about the effects of large-scale immigration on the American economy or American culture are perfectly legitimate.” Indeed, this new, more selective immigration system proved to be both wildly popular and successful. The quotas were renewed in 1924 and again in 1952, and in terms of America’s social development, the ensuing four and a half decades of restricted immigration were perhaps our nation’s finest. Limits on the practice of importing labor to break strikes and compress wages helped create the American middle class, while the cultural “hodgepodge” (to borrow Obama’s phrase) that had been growing during the Great Wave period began melting away.

Although this system ended with the 1965 act, no one expected the status quo to change much, including its main advocate, Senator Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.). In his opening remarks during the introduction of the bill, Kennedy famously promised that “our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually” and that the “ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.” During congressional testimony, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D., N.Y.), another booster, tried to “rest any fears” by stating that the bill would not “change the ethnic, political, or economic makeup” of the country. Senator Hiram Fong (R., Hawaii) said the act would “not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or most populated and economically deprived nations of Africa and Asia.”

RELATED: Readin’, ‘Ritin’, ‘Rithmetic — After Waves of Immigration, Millions of Americans Lack Basic Skills

These assurances, of course, turned out to be breathtakingly mistaken. Last month, Asians overtook Hispanics as America’s fastest-growing immigrant group, and since the act was implemented in 1968, our immigration authorities have let 59 million people into the country — 72 million if you include their U.S.-born children. To those who say such a trajectory will taper off for demographic reasons (slackening birth rates in Central America, for instance), Africa’s population was recently predicted to hit 6 billion by 2100.

#share#What the 1965 act actually did was twofold: It took the existing nationality quotas and basically applied them to all countries (with slightly more allotments going to the southern and eastern hemispheres), and it added a new, unlimited “family reunification” category for spouses, children, parents, siblings, and other family members. It was this latter provision that caused the mass-immigration situation we have today. Describing what eventually became known as “chain migration,” Fortune magazine noted in 1988 that within a dozen years of a single student’s becoming a resident alien and then a naturalized citizen, visas could be generated for his spouse, children, brothers, and sisters, with a further 25 visas going to in-laws, nieces, and nephews.

The new emphasis on family connections, coupled with a lack of limits, took away a large part of our national sovereignty.

Importantly, this new emphasis on family connections (over assimilation and labor concerns), coupled with its lack of limits, took away a large part of our national sovereignty. As Senator Eugene McCarthy, an initial supporter of the act, lamented decades later, the change represented “the transfer of policy control from the elected representatives of the American people to individuals wishing to bring relatives to this country.”

In testimony before Congress, Myra Hacker of the New Jersey Coalition pointed out the mathematical implications of the new “chain migration” provision, telling Congress that “the hidden mathematics of the bill should be made clear to the public.” Barely anyone listened. On charges that the old system discriminated on the basis of national birth, Senator Sam Ervin (D., N.C.) noted that all immigration policies discriminate to the extent that they’re not based on open borders.

#related#The 1965 act turned out to be no different, and not just in terms of its discrimination against skills and assimilation. With quotas now being opened to all countries, post-1965 immigrants were largely coming from the relatively poor Asian and Latin American nations. And because those newcomers had immediate ties to big families back home (Mexico’s fertility rate in 1960 was 7.2), their immigration rates quickly exploded. Most European Americans, on the other hand, had few links left with Europe and could not benefit from the family-reunification provision. This led New York congressman Emanuel Celler, the lead sponsor of the 1965 act, to lament years later that the new system created “unintentional discrimination” against Europeans. The Immigration Reform Act of 1965, as National Review’s Mark Krikorian says, was a “textbook case of unintended consequences.”

Now, not only is mass immigration into the western world considered an inevitability, it’s considered a right. As former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad said in a speech in 1997:

We do have the ultimate weapon. People are more mobile now. They can go anywhere. . . . If we are not allowed a good life in our countries, if we are going to be global citizens, then we should migrate North. We should migrate North in our millions, legally or illegally. Masses of Asians and Africans should inundate Europe and America.

On this anniversary of the act, Americans must remember that the 50-year tide of immigration that their nation’s experienced was never inevitable or intended. Mass immigration can be stopped again.

— Ian Smith is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and works for the Immigration Reform Law Institute.

Ian SmithIan Smith is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and a contributing blogger with immigration enforcement advocate, the Immigration Reform Law Institute.


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