The Immigration Act of 1965 and the Creation of a Modern, Diverse America

Fifty years ago this month, Congress passed one of the most important civil rights laws of our time--the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act. Largely overshadowed by other civil rights laws passed in the 1960s, the 1965 Immigration Act was groundbreaking for ending race discrimination in immigration law. As we commemorate the passage of this law, it is important to celebrate it but at the same time recognize its limitations and learn from the lessons it has taught us over the last half-century.

It is perhaps fitting that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration Act at a ceremony held in the shadow of the Statute of Liberty. Its primary goal was to repeal the National Origin Quota System, providing that "no person shall . . . be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of his race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence." The Act was a Kennedy family project; the blueprint for the law was John F. Kennedy's 1964 book A Nation of Immigrants, and Robert and Edward worked for its passage in the Senate.

Today, the Act stands out as the most effective of the civil rights era landmarks. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been partially invalidated and faces further challenges, and no one claims that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 succeeded in eliminating race and sex discrimination. By contrast, the 1965 Immigration Act actually ended racist preferences for white immigrants that dated back to the 18th century. Since Congress restricted naturalized citizenship to "free white persons" in 1790, the immigration system had been a cornerstone of American apartheid. In the 19th and 20th centuries, laws such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and 1924 National Origins Quotas Act banned most Asians and Southern and Eastern Europeans. The passage of the Immigration Act was thus an official move to reverse laws designed to create a nation that favored mainly Northern and Western European whites.

Interestingly, President Johnson claimed that "this bill . . . is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives." Fifty years after making those statements, it is clear he was mistaken. The 1965 Immigration Act in fact precipitated a demographic revolution. Most immigrants since 1965 have been people of color from Asia and Central and South America, groups previously excluded based on race or discouraged by policy. Today, in California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas, and the District of Columbia, racial and ethnic minorities make up the majority of the population, and the Census Bureau predicts that by 2044, the United States as a whole will also be majority non-white. We live in a nation--a more diverse one--created by the 1965 Immigration Act.

To be sure, the 1965 Immigration Act was far from perfect. Reflecting the prejudice of its time, it strengthened prohibitions on the immigration of gays and lesbians, a restriction that ended only in 1990. Another blind spot involved refugees. Refugee status based on persecution was available only to those from a "Communist or Communist-dominated country," or "the general area of the Middle East." Migrants fleeing for their lives from other countries were denied admission to the U.S. on account of this policy tied to Cold War. It was not until 1980 that Congress adopted a definition of refugee that complied with international humanitarian obligations.

The greatest blunder is still not fully resolved: dealing with Mexican migrant workers. Before 1965, in a provision designed to benefit American agriculture, Congress allowed unlimited migration from the Western hemisphere, which included Mexico. Mexican farm laborers could return to Mexico confident that they could reenter the United States as temporary workers when they wanted. The 1965 Act ended the preference for Western Hemisphere immigration in the name of equality and in preventing exploitation, without considering that agricultural workers' livelihoods depended on this work, which many had been doing for decades. The law turned lawful, productive, temporary workers into permanent residents of the United States without legal status. The presence of the eleven millions undocumented immigrants is part of the 1965 Immigration Act's legacy that federal lawmakers today would have to address today when they take up comprehensive immigration reform.

The limits of the 1965 Immigration Act should not take away, however, from its larger and important contribution: the creation of a more diverse modern America.

Co-written with Gabriel "Jack" Chin. Jack Chin and Rose Cuison Villazor are Professors of Law at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. They are the co-editors of the new book "The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965: Legislating a New America" by Cambridge University Press.