Lyndon Johnson's Ambivalent Reform: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

By Tichenor, Daniel | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Lyndon Johnson's Ambivalent Reform: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965


Tichenor, Daniel, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Introduction

Even by the outsized standards of Lyndon Johnson (or LBJ) and his Great Society juggernaut, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (INA) was monumental. The new law marked a dramatic break from immigration policies of the past by abolishing eugenics-inspired national origins quotas that barred nearly all Asian and African newcomers and reserved about seventy percent of visas for immigrants from just three countries: Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany. In their place, the INA established a preference framework that continues to guide American immigrant admissions, with family ties receiving highest priority followed by occupational skills and political refugee status. The product of contentious political wrangling, this immigration reform ultimately transformed the demographic makeup of the country (Schwartz 1968; Reimers 1992; Cose 1992; Tichenor 2002; Daniels 2004). Although few historians believe that the INA's champions anticipated just how profoundly it would change the U.S. demographic landscape (Reimers 1992; Ngai 2004; Lee 2014; Chin 2015), Johnson recognized that its passage was especially significant--enough so that he oversaw the staging of an elaborate signing ceremony at the base of the Statue of Liberty. White House staffers were given strict instructions by the President to physically block political rivals like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller from the cameras assembled on the dais at Liberty Island. (1) Hinting at the INA's potential impact, Johnson predicted that the new law would "strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways" (Johnson 1965). Fifty years later, this sweeping immigration reform is being commemorated alongside the Voting Rights Act as one of the crowning--and most controversial--achievements of the hard-driving Johnson years (Gjetlten 2015; Munoz 2015; Wolgin 2015).

Yet the INA, also called the Hart-Celler Act, very nearly languished among the more than one hundred proposals that the Johnson administration submitted and lawmakers enacted during its first years in office. In fact, Johnson himself posed the first major hurdle to policy innovation. As the first section of this essay elucidates, generations of presidents were frustrated by the politics of immigration reform and Johnson in particular had good reason to eschew the passion his slain predecessor had for action on this issue. Getting the President on board required herculean efforts from reformers and clear linkages to be drawn between immigration policy and the administration's civil rights and foreign policy agendas. The next formidable barrier, as we shall see in the second section, came from immigration restrictionists both inside and outside Congress who adamantly opposed a marked expansion in immigration opportunities, especially for those originating from nontraditional source countries. Johnson and the INA's legislative supporters overcame these legislative headwinds by making significant concessions in terms of admissions preferences and the creation of new limits on Western Hemisphere immigration. The result, as I discuss in the concluding section, is a transformative law that has provoked sharply contrasting views of its meaning and impact. In the end, the Hart-Celler Act is a reflection of the arduous struggles between Johnson, reformers, and congressional stalwarts over its form and substance. Rather than a straightforward sea change in U.S. immigration policy, the INA is better understood as a mosaic of reforms with crosscutting implications that continue to haunt American immigration politics.

Presidents, Immigration Reform, and LBJ's Late Conversion

When he became president in late 1963, Lyndon Johnson knew well that nearly all of his predecessors from the Gilded Age onward found immigration policy to be a political buzz saw. Over time, few occupants of the Oval Office sought to leave their mark on how immigrant admissions and rights were governed and even fewer had a measure of success in doing so. …

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