1965 Immigration Law Changed Face of America

“Over time, in a process critics call “chain migration,” entire families have re-established themselves in the United States. Historian Otis Graham thinks the policy has been a terrible mistake. “Family reunification puts the decision of who comes to America in the hands of foreigners,” Graham says. “Those decisions are out of the hand of the Congress — they just set up a formula and its kinship. Frankly, it could be called nepotism.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (center) signs the sweeping immigration bill of 1965 into law at a ceremony on Liberty Island, Oct. 4, 1965. Sen. Edward Kennedy and his brother, Sen. Robert Kennedy, are seen at right.


“This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions,” Johnson said at the signing ceremony. “It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power.”

Looking back, Johnson’s statement is remarkable because it proved so wrong. Why? Sociologist Klineberg says the government’s newfound sense of egalitarianism only went so far. The central purpose of the new immigration law was to reunite families.

Klineberg notes that in debating an overhaul of immigration policy in the 1960s, many in Congress had argued that little would change because the measure gave preference to relatives of immigrants already in America. Another provision gave preference to professionals with skills in short supply in the United States.

“Congress was saying in its debates, ‘We need to open the door for some more British doctors, some more German engineers,'” Klineberg says. “It never occurred to anyone, literally, that there were going to be African doctors, Indian engineers, Chinese computer programmers who’d be able, for the first time in the 20th century, to immigrate to America.”

Predictions Based on Ignorance?


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