President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration Act of 1965 on Liberty Island in New York Harbor with a view of the New York City skyline in the background.

The 1965 Aimed to Eliminate Race Discrimination in Immigration

In 1960, Pew notes, 84 percent of U.S. immigrants were born in Europe or Canada; 6 percent were from Mexico, 3.8 percent were from South and East Asia, 3.5 percent were from Latin America and 2.7 percent were from other parts of the world. In 2017, European and Canadian immigrants totaled 13.2 percent, while Mexicans totaled 25.3 percent, other Latin Americans totaled 25.1 percent, Asians totaled 27.4 percent and other populations totaled 9 percent.

The 1965 act has to be understood as a result of the civil rights movement, and the general effort to eliminate race discrimination from U.S. law, says Gabriel “Jack” Chin, immigration law professor at University of California, Davis and co-editor of The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act: Legislating a New America.

READ MORE: U.S. Immigration Timeline

The Kennedy's and the Immigration Act of 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) as the senator's brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) looks on after the signing of the newly enacted immigration reform bill at the Statue of liberty.

Kennedys Saw Immigration Reform as Part of Civil Rights Movement

Immigration reform was also a personal project of John F. Kennedy, Chin notes, whose pamphlet written as a senator was published after his assassination as the book A Nation of Immigrants, and argued for the elimination of the National Origins Quota System in place since 1921.

Ted Kennedy, along with Attorney General and Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.), were both proponents of the bill, in part to honor their brother and also because it was consistent with their general interest in civil rights and international cold war politics, Chin adds.

“I think every sensible person in 1965 knew that the sources of immigration would change,” Chin says. “The more fundamental change, and the more fundamental policy, was the articulation by many legislators that it simply did not matter from where an immigrant came; each person would be evaluated as an individual. That kind of argument was novel, but consistent with the anti-racism of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The act, Edward Kennedy argued during the Senate floor debate, went to the “very central ideals of our country.”

“Our streets may not be paved with gold, but they are paved with the promise that men and women who live here—even strangers and new newcomers—can rise as fast, as far as their skills will allow, no matter what their color is, no matter what the place of their birth,” he said.

Changes Introduced by the Immigration Act of 1965

Among the key changes brought by the Hart-Celler Act:

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