The Immigration & Naturalization Act of 1965

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 removed immigration quotas, resulting in wide-ranging demographic changes for the United States. This lesson explains the passage and effects of the Act.

Immigration to the United States

You've heard the United States referred to as 'the melting pot' due to its diversity. A 1908 New York City play helped popularize the term, but at that time 9 out of 10 Americans were White. Statistics from 2010 showed that around 7 out of 10 Americans were White. So is today's population more diverse? Not only is it more diverse, but there are also more nationalities represented.

The United States population is based largely on immigration from other countries. Immigration in general refers to the act of entering a country with the intent to establish permanent residence. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most immigration to the U.S. was from Northern and Western European countries. Many immigrants came from Ireland and Germany in order to escape famine and claim farmland. In 1907 alone, about 1.3 million people legally immigrated to the U.S.

Image of Ellis Island, the main immigration hub for the U.S. at that time, from 1905.
Ellis Island in 1905

The National Origins Formula

By the 1920s America also saw an influx of Italians looking for job opportunities and Jewish families fleeing religious persecution. But some Americans felt inundated and sought constraints. The Immigration Act of 1924 resulted. This law established a quota system, known as the National Origins Formula, which restricted immigration to two percent of the total number of people from each nationality living in America, using figures from the 1890 national census. For example, if the 1890 census showed there were 20,000 Irish people living in America, the formula restricted new Irish immigrants to no more than 400 people.

Because the U.S. had a large number of citizens with roots in Northern and Western Europe at that time, the formula favored immigrants from these areas. Notably, the law also prohibited almost all immigration from Asia.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965

The National Origins Formula stayed in place until 1965, when it was replaced by a new immigration model during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. The new model is a preference system put into place through the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which is also known as the Hart-Celler Act after the politicians who sponsored the legislation.

Though the 1965 law was unpopular with the American public, it received bipartisan support in Congress and passed by a large margin. President John F. Kennedy strongly favored the new system prior to his assassination, calling the former quotas 'intolerable'. Support for the new model was further bolstered by those backing the civil rights movement.

Many politicians publicly defended the new system, claiming that the effects on American culture would be minimal. However, that wasn't the case. Let's take a closer look at the model and the results.

The New Model

The 1965 act established a preference system. Emphasis was placed on the immigrant's skills and family relationships with people already residing in the U.S. In general, the new system requires a prospective immigrant to be sponsored by a U.S. citizen relative, U.S. lawful permanent resident relative, or a prospective employer. Those with a skill deemed useful to the U.S., or with citizen relatives, are given immigration preference. However, there are exceptions for people fleeing violence or political unrest. The new law focuses on keeping families together, or reuniting families.

Rather than setting a percentage quota, the new model uses a numerical restriction on the number of visas issued. The 1965 law allowed up to 170,000 visas per year, not including immediate family of U.S. citizens or special immigrants. Special immigrants include those people born in independent nations in the Western Hemisphere, former citizens, ministers, and employees of the U.S. government.

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