Lyndon Johnson's ambivalent reform: the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Author:Tichenor, Daniel
Position:The Historical Presidency - Essay


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. It was Congress, not the American presidency, who dominated immigration policy making for most of the nation's history (Tichenor 2004). Presidents who resisted Chinese exclusion on diplomatic grounds in the late nineteenth century, for instance, were castigated by mass publics in the West and ignored by large House and Senate majorities eager to curry favor with the Sinophobic vote. (2) Woodrow Wilson vetoed literacy test legislation designed to discourage southern and eastern European immigration during his first term, only to have his veto of similar legislation overridden by large bipartisan majorities in 1917 (Wilson 1958, 187-88; Higham 1963, 192-93). In the 1930s, a period when draconian national origins quotas barred entry for most newcomers and demagogues like Representative Martin Dies (D-TX) blamed unemployment on past immigration policies, the Roosevelt administration avoided clashes with immigration restrictionists in Congress (Dies 1934; Tichenor 2002, 156-67). When Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins considered endorsing a Wagner-Rogers bill in 1939 that would have provided asylum to 20,000 German Jewish children, the White House insisted they maintain silent neutrality as nativist lawmakers blocked action. (3)

Cold War presidents like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were far more aggressive in challenging draconian immigration policies they saw as damaging to U.S. geopolitical interests. Both administrations enjoyed some success in winning temporary refugee relief for European "displaced persons" and Hungarian insurgents, either taking independent executive action or gaining passage of modest refugee relief laws (Truman 1953, 10; Loescher and Scanlan 1986, 17-62). However, neither president was able to secure significant changes in federal immigration policies that explicitly favored northern and western Europeans. In fact, congressional defenders of immigration restriction gained passage of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 (over a Truman veto) that fortified the exclusionary national origins quota system begun in 1924 and established new bars based on ideology and sexual preference (Divine 1972, 177-91; Reimers 1992, 54-56). "In no other realm of our national life," Truman lamented during his battle with congressional restrictionists, "are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration" (Truman 1953, 443-44). Eisenhower fared no better during his two terms, lecturing Congress during his final year in office about the need to liberalize federal immigration laws (Eisenhower 1961, 308-10).

Perhaps no president was more closely identified with the cause of liberal immigration reform than John F. Kennedy (or JFK). During his senate tenure, Kennedy joined with pro-immigration colleagues like Philip Hart (D-MI) and Kenneth Keating (R-NY) in proposing unsuccessful bills to replace the McCarran-Walter Act. He also celebrated America's immigration traditions as author of A Nation of Immigrants in 1958, ghost written by adviser Meyer Feldman and promoted by the Anti-Defamation League. (4) His 1960 victory invigorated pro-immigration reformers. Despite their high expectations, however, Kennedy got nowhere on plans to alter U.S. immigration law due to potent opposition from conservative Democrats like Senator James Eastland (D-MS) and Representative Frances Walter (D-PA), who controlled the immigration subcommittees of both houses. It was not until 1963 after Walter's death that JFK proposed legislation to dismantle national origins quotas with a new preference system giving top priority to immigrant job skills and education (Kennedy 1966, 137-38). The White House soon discovered that Walter's successor as chair of the House immigration subcommittee, Michael Feighan (D-OH), strongly opposed the administration's blueprints for reform. (5)

Some immigration scholars have argued that the nation's grief over Kennedy's assassination combined with Johnson's prowess as a legislative leader "meant the end of the quota system and its replacement by a preference system was virtually inevitable" (LeMay 1987, 111). But few Washington insiders shared this conviction in the first stages of the Johnson administration. (6) Although LBJ famously insisted "there was not time to rest" in pursuit of his Great Society agenda, it was unclear early on whether he wanted immigration reform to figure prominently on that agenda (Johnson 1971, 161; Leuchtenberg 1971, 161). In fact, he was all too familiar with the legislative headaches that immigration reform posed by the time he became president, having been whipsawed by rivals on the issue for years in the Senate. In 1952, he joined conservative Democrats and Republicans in voting for the McCarran-Walter Act and again in overriding Truman's veto 57 to 26. As Senate Majority Leader in 1955, reporters noted that Johnson "exploded with invective" when pressed about holdups on progressive immigration reform (Dallek 1992, 485).

Yet he also joined northern liberals of his party in supporting modest refugee relief legislation favored by the Eisenhower administration in 1953 and 1957. His own oscillations on the issue reflected the challenges of leading Senate Democrats who were deeply divided between conservatives opposed to any opening of the gates and liberals committed to dismantling national origins quotas.

During his first days as president, Johnson's willingness to pursue immigration reform was an open question. Acutely aware of his silence on the issue while mobilizing on a broad slate of civil rights, antipoverty, and other initiatives, White House officials who worked on immigration policy during Kennedy's tenure urged LBJ to support the dismantlement of national origins quotas. However, Johnson initially refused the idea when urged by former Kennedy advisers like Meyer Feldman, who were told that immigration was an explosive issue that could hurt other reform plans. (7) He also worried about...

To continue reading