By the early 1960s, calls to reform U.S. immigration policy had mounted, thanks in no small part to the growing strength of the civil rights movement. At the time, immigration was based on the national-origins quota system in place since the 1920s, under which each nationality was assigned a quota based on its representation in past U.S. census figures. The civil rights movement’s focus on equal treatment regardless of race or nationality led many to view the quota system as backward and discriminatory. In particular, Greeks, Poles, Portuguese and Italians–of whom increasing numbers were seeking to enter the U.S.–claimed that the quota system discriminated against them in favor of Northern Europeans. President John F. Kennedy even took up the immigration reform cause, giving a speech in June 1963 calling the quota system “intolerable.”
After Kennedy’s assassination that November, Congress began debating and would eventually pass the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, co-sponsored by Representative Emanuel Celler of New York and Senator Philip Hart of Michigan and heavily supported by the late president’s brother, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. During Congressional debates, a number of experts testified that little would effectively change under the reformed legislation, and it was seen more as a matter of principle to have a more open policy. Indeed, on signing the act into law in October 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated that the act “is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions….It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power.”
In reality (and with the benefit of hindsight), the bill signed in 1965 marked a dramatic break with past immigration policy, and would have an immediate and lasting impact. In place of the national-origins quota system, the act provided for preferences to be made according to categories, such as relatives of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, those with skills deemed useful to the United States or refugees of violence or unrest. Though it abolished quotas per se, the system did place caps on per-country and total immigration, as well as caps on each category. As in the past, family reunification was a major goal, and the new immigration policy would increasingly allow entire families to uproot themselves from other countries and reestablish their lives in the U.S.
In the first five years after the bill’s passage, immigration to the U.S. from Asian countries–especially those fleeing war-torn Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia)–would more than quadruple. (Under past immigration policies, Asian immigrants had been effectively barred from entry.) Other Cold War-era conflicts during the 1960s and 1970s saw millions of people fleeing poverty or the hardships of communist regimes in Cuba, Eastern Europe and elsewhere to seek their fortune on American shores. All told, in the three decades following passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, more than 18 million legal immigrants entered the United States, more than three times the number admitted over the preceding 30 years.
By the end of the 20th century, the policies put into effect by the Immigration Act of 1965 had greatly changed the face of the American population. Whereas in the 1950s, more than half of all immigrants were Europeans and just 6 percent were Asians, by the 1990s only 16 percent were Europeans and 31 percent were of Asian descent, while the percentages of Latino and African immigrants had also jumped significantly. Between 1965 and 2000, the highest number of immigrants (4.3 million) to the U.S. came from Mexico, in addition to some 1.4 million from the Philippines. Korea, the Dominican Republic, India, Cuba and Vietnam were also leading sources of immigrants, each sending between 700,000 and 800,000 over this period.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, illegal immigration was a constant source of political debate, as immigrants continue to pour into the United States, mostly by land routes through Canada and Mexico. The Immigration Reform Act in 1986 attempted to address the issue by providing better enforcement of immigration policies and creating more possibilities to seek legal immigration. The act included two amnesty programs for unauthorized aliens, and collectively granted amnesty to more than 3 million illegal aliens. Another piece of immigration legislation, the 1990 Immigration Act, modified and expanded the 1965 act, increasing the total level of immigration to 700,000. The law also provided for the admission of immigrants from “underrepresented” countries to increase the diversity of the immigrant flow.
The economic recession that hit the country in the early 1990s was accompanied by a resurgence of anti-immigrant feeling, including among lower-income Americans competing for jobs with immigrants willing to work for lower wages. In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which addressed border enforcement and the use of social programs by immigrants.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which took over many immigration service and enforcement functions formerly performed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). With some modifications, the policies put into place by the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 are the same ones governing U.S. immigration in the early 21st century. Non-citizens currently enter the United States lawfully in one of two ways, either by receiving either temporary (non-immigrant) admission or permanent (immigrant) admission. A member of the latter category is classified as a lawful permanent resident, and receives a green card granting them eligibility to work in the United States and to eventually apply for citizenship.
There could be perhaps no greater reflection of the impact of immigration than the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and an American mother (from Kansas), as the nation’s first African-American president. Eighty-five percent white in 1965, the nation’s population was one-third minority in 2009 and is on track for a nonwhite majority by 2042.
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