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The Geopolitical Origins of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965

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The Geopolitical Origins of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration Act of 1965 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965 as Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Lady Bird Johnson, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and others look on. (Photo: Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library)

In 2015, the United States marks the 50th anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which radically shifted U.S. policy away from selecting immigrants by national origin. Until 1965, the national-origins quotas created a preference for immigration from countries in Northwestern Europe, loosely restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and tightly restricted immigration from Asia, Africa, and the colonized Caribbean. For example, the 1929 quotas gave 51,227 of the overall 150,000 annual slots to Germans, 100 to Greeks, and zero to Chinese.

The 1965 law eliminated the national-origins quotas and relied on a preference system focused on immigrants’ family relationships with U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, or their skills. The law banned discrimination in the issuance of immigrant visas based on “race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence,” with several major exceptions. It established an annual cap of 170,000 visas for immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere, with no country in the hemisphere allowed more than 20,000 visas. The act also for the first time established a cap for immigrants from independent countries of the Western Hemisphere, with an annual limit of 120,000 visas. Spouses, minor children, and parents of adult U.S. citizens were exempted from the new caps.

The 1965 immigration law quickly transformed the ethnic portrait of the United States. The European and Canadian share of legal immigrants fell from 60 percent in the 1950s to 22 percent in the 1970s. By contrast, the Asian share of legal immigration rose from 6 percent in the 1950s to 35 percent by the 1980s and 40 percent in 2013. The demographic diversity of the U.S. population today in many ways is the direct result of the 1965 legislation, which had been championed by President Kennedy and after his death was signed into law by President Johnson in a ceremony at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965.

This article, drawn from the book Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas, examines the foreign policy and domestic concerns that led to the design and implementation of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Many scholars assert that the demise of the national-origins quotas was driven by the U.S. civil-rights movement, which sought to end racial segregation in the United States and make social discrimination by race illegitimate. For example, the 1965 act was described as “The Civil Rights Revolution Comes to Immigration Law,” in legal scholar Gabriel Chin’s account. Policymakers explicitly linked passage of the legislation to the civil rights narrative. In 1964 Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy declared, “Everywhere else in our national life, we have eliminated discrimination based on one’s place of birth. Yet this system is still the foundation of our immigration law.” The landmark immigration law passed just a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the same year as the Voting Rights Act. This article argues that while the civil-rights movement may have influenced the creation of the 1965 act, the demise of the national-origins quota system was fundamentally driven by geopolitical factors.

Foreign Policy Pressures

The shift away from ethnic selection in U.S. immigration policy was primarily a response to foreign policy pressures emanating from the growing number of independent Asian, African, and Latin American countries that sought to delegitimize racism through the United Nations and other, particularly Pan-American, multilateral institutions. World War II and Cold War national-security concerns amplified the pressure on the United States to end the national-origins immigration system. The Allies in World War II and the West during the Cold War risked losing support from Third World countries whose peoples were excluded by openly racist immigration laws.

In Latin America, a wave of reaction against U.S. military and economic interventions swept the region in the 1930s. Populist policymakers and intellectuals decried a long history of U.S. occupation and gunboat diplomacy. Throughout the continent, Latin American elites resented the heavy-handedness of U.S. policymakers who treated Latin Americans as inferiors and threatened to include them in the U.S. national-origins quotas. Even though Latin American governments themselves discriminated against their own nonwhite populations, they began to promote the new concept of “anti-racism” at home and abroad.

Taking up the banner of anti-racism was seen as a way to pressure the United States to improve the treatment of Latin American migrants, particularly Mexicans in the U.S. Southwest, Cubans in Florida, and Central Americans and Caribbean islanders in the racially segregated Panama Canal Zone. Anti-racism thus became a tool of foreign policy for many Latin American countries in their relationship with the United States.

The 8th International Conference of American States, which was held in Lima, Peru in 1938, issued a resolution recommending that countries adopt immigration provisions that did not discriminate by nationality, creed, or race. Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uruguay removed race-based provisions from their laws in the late 1930s and 1940s, and the United States received pressure to do so as well.

World War II sharply accelerated a process of decolonization that led to a host of newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. While countries of immigration could politically afford to ignore the reactions of colonized peoples and weak states prior to World War II, decolonization and the formation of world institutions such as the United Nations gave the views of postcolonial governments significant influence. Forty countries with one-quarter of the world’s population gained independence between 1945 and 1960. In the face of opposition from the governments of Anglophone settler societies, many of these new countries joined Latin American republics in using the United Nations as a platform to advance nondiscriminatory statements of principle.

U.S. President Harry Truman created the Commission on Immigration and Naturalization in 1952 to hold hearings on immigration reform. Its report, Whom We Shall Welcome, formed the outline of the 1965 act. It called for abolishing the national-origins quotas, particularly “racist provisions” toward Asians and Caribbean blacks. The rationales for these changes included the “democratic faith of our own Declaration of Independence in the equality of all men” and an affirmation that “the best scientific evidence available today” shows that “the basic racist assumption of the national origins system is invalid.”

Beyond these nods to liberal democratic creeds and the scientific rejection of racism, foreign policy concerns dominated the report’s arguments. The commission argued that ethnically discriminatory immigration policies impaired U.S. foreign policy. It cited the exclusion of Japanese immigrants in the 1924 act as promoting the growth of Japanese militarism directed against the United States in World War II, and the ongoing blows delivered by Communist countries in Cold War propaganda wars. For example, Radio Moscow’s broadcasts to Asia argued that the U.S. immigration system was based on ideas about racial hierarchies that were similar to Nazism.

By 1956, the Republican and Democratic party platforms both endorsed ending the national-origins quotas. After the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged in 1955, the powerful new federation supported ending the national-origins quotas as long as the total number of immigrants did not increase. Scholars have explained organized labor’s shift away from restriction as a result of the booming postwar economy, its alliance with the civil-rights movement, the incorporation of the CIO with its disproportionately high representation of white ethnics, and its commitment to helping the United States achieve Cold War goals abroad. AFL-CIO President George Meany described ending the national-origins quota as the federation’s patriotic duty when he declared that “part of our total program to combat world Communism must be a willingness to welcome a reasonable number to our own shores.”

The Cold War and International Reputation

Cold War concerns eventually filtered down from the executive branch to include a broader public. An August 1963 Harris Poll found that 78 percent of white Americans believed that race discrimination in general in the United States harmed it abroad. A Gallup poll two years later found broad support for changing the quota system.

Opponents of the existing system pointed to the high diplomatic costs of maintaining the current policy and its unfairness for using race and national origin as criteria of selection. By the early 1960s, newly independent countries with an international voice were on the verge of successfully pushing forward the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and U.S. policies were the targets of sustained international criticism.

Supporters of ending national-origin quotas echoed the internationalist arguments made against the 1952 immigration bill. Senator Kenneth Keating (R-NY) asked in 1961, “If we are willing to continue laws discriminating against individuals because of race or national origin, what trust can we in turn expect from the emerging nations of Asia and Africa?”

Echoing arguments made earlier about the Korean War, Rep. John Lindsay (R-NY) noted the paradox of fighting for South Vietnam while continuing to exclude all but token numbers of Vietnamese: “[T]his nation has committed itself to the defense of the independence of South Vietnam. Yet the quota for that country of 15 million is exactly 100. Apparently we are willing to risk a major war for the right of the Vietnamese people to live in freedom at the same time as our quota system makes it clear that we do not want very great numbers of them to live with us.”

Secretary of State Dean Rusk told a congressional hearing in 1964 that U.S. immigration policy had serious, negative foreign policy implications. “What other peoples think about us plays an important role in the achievement of our foreign policies,” he argued. “More than a dozen foreign ministers have spoken to me in the last year alone, not about the practicalities of immigration from their country to ours, but about the principle which they interpret as discrimination against their particular countries.” Rusk emphasized that “even those [countries] who do not use their quotas…resent the fact that the quotas are there as a discriminatory measure.”

In the same vein, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach warned that the “national origins system harms the United States in still another way: it creates an image of hypocrisy which can be exploited by those who seek to discredit our professions of democracy.”

Domestic Pressures for Reform

Developments within the United States influenced the shift in immigration policy as well. Some legislators at the time specifically mentioned the connection between U.S. civil rights and the end of the national-origins scheme. For example, Rep. Philip Burton (D-CA) told the House, “Just as we sought to eliminate discrimination in our land through the Civil Rights Act, today we seek by phasing out the national origins quota system to eliminate discrimination in immigration to this nation composed of the descendants of immigrants.”

Yet the civil-rights movement at the time was primarily framed in a black/white dichotomy, and the 1965 Immigration Act was not strongly pushed by African-American organizations, which focused on fighting for their civil rights within the United States. Domestic efforts across the ethnic spectrum to change the national-origins quotas varied depending on each group’s particular interests and influence. For example, United Farm Worker leader César Chávez was more concerned with ending labor market competition from the Bracero temporary worker program, which gave 4.6 million Bracero contracts (mostly to Mexican nationals) between 1942 and 1964, than in changing the whole immigration system. Asian-American congressional representatives opposed national-origins quotas but were largely ineffectual given their extremely small numbers and constituencies.          

White ethnic organizations and representatives attacked the quota system for discriminating against the Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Poles, and other Europeans waiting in line for oversubscribed quotas. In the most extreme case, almost 137,000 Italians were queued for “fourth preference” family reunification visas in 1962, creating an expected waiting time of more than 50 years. White ethnic voices had become much more influential by 1965 than in previous legislative debates. John F. Kennedy had become the first elected Catholic president in 1960, and the 89th Congress (1965–66) was the first in U.S. history to be majority Catholic.

Despite these cultural shifts, the ability of a few congressional leaders to block reform partly explains why the national-origins system endured until 1965 rather than changing under executive pressure in the mid-1950s. Conservative Democrats held powerful congressional committee positions and were able to defeat efforts by racial egalitarians in their own party to enact immigration reform. Reform bills were bottled up in committee until Rep. Francis Walter (D-PA), coauthor of the restrictive 1952 act and chair of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization, died in May 1963.

New Era in Immigration Policy

Undoubtedly, the timing of the end of the national-origins quotas was affected by the structure of the U.S. legislative process, ethnic lobbying, and the civil-rights movement. Ultimately, however, seismic geopolitical shifts created openings for reforms such as the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that sharply reduced racialized laws in the United States and beyond. Indeed, other major Anglophone countries later followed suit in removing their race-based policies—Canada in the 1960s, Australia in 1973, Britain in 1981, and New Zealand in 1986.

Fifty years on, geopolitical pressures and ideas about ethnicity continue to influence the politics and policies of immigration. In the United States, a spate of state and local policies has targeted unauthorized immigrants. Had it not been overturned by a federal judge, California’s Proposition 187 in 1994 would have restricted unauthorized immigrants’ access to social services and K-12 education. Arizona’s SB 1070 passed in 2010 requires police to check the immigration papers of anyone whom they reasonably suspect of being unauthorized. Taken at face value, these policies are racially neutral, but the public debate has targeted Latinos, and many observers argue that such laws are an invitation to racial profiling. Racialized laws aimed at Latinos and other minority groups in practice are more likely to appear on the state and local level where foreign policy concerns are weaker than the national level.

Even at the subnational level, however, foreign policy concerns can leave their mark. When the Supreme Court overturned most of Arizona’s SB 1070’s provisions in 2012, it favorably cited a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Mexican government and 16 other Latin American countries arguing that a patchwork of immigration laws would harm diplomatic relations. While state and local governments may continue to push policies that deliberately and differentially affect immigrant groups, debate over immigration legislation at the federal level continues to consider broader geopolitical concerns.

This article is drawn from David S. FitzGerald and David Cook-Martín’s book, Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas, published by Harvard University Press in 2014.


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