The Immigration Bill that changed America: Fifty Years Later


A major immigration bill a half-century ago is a reminder that policy changes often don’t go as planned. For today’s politicians, perhaps the biggest takeaway of the Immigration and Nationality Act is to expect unintended consequences.

It was in 1965, during the depths of the cold war and the peak of the civil rights movement, that the United States overhauled its immigration laws. Working with liberal democrats and liberal Republicans (who existed then), President Lyndon Johnson pushed a bill that did away with the national origins quota system. The old quota system, in place since the 1920s, determined who could immigrate to the U.S. based on ethnicity, with a heavy tilt toward Western Europeans—especially the English, Irish and Germans. Only small allotments were granted to Eastern Europeans, Asians and Africans.

That became an issue for the United States in the ‘60s, when new countries were emerging from colonialism, pitting the U.S. and the Soviet Union in a contest for their allegiances. Republican Senator Jacob Javits, a liberal from New York, noted in September 1965 that the immigration system, with its bias toward Western Europeans, “remains today a target for Communist propaganda…making our effort to win over the uncommitted nations more difficult.”

Economic trends in both Latin America and the U.S. also encouraged more migration. As Motomura explains it, 1965 was the “beginning of a mismatch of the legal immigration system and the demands of the economy.” Specifically, urbanization and economic dislocation drove Mexicans and other Central Americans from rural areas north in search of work, while Americans were obtaining higher levels of education and moving away from menial labor. “In 1950, more than half of the labor force were high school dropouts. Now it’s less than 5 percent,” notes Tamar Jacoby, president of the business-backed coalition ImmigrationWorks USA. The law’s drafters “didn’t foresee that.” That’s an understatement.

The lesson of unintended consequences is something advocates on both sides of today’s immigration debate acknowledge. “The first lesson is: Don’t believe everything a politician tells you. As we’ve seen with all kinds of social innovations from the 1960s and 1970s, the assurances of their promoters turn out to be incomplete or false,” says Mark Krikorian, the head of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for much tighter controls on immigration. He and Jacoby agree that the family migration provisions have pushed the system out of whack. But they’re vehemently divided over whether the country still needs robust immigration, and if unmet labor demand is at the root of America’s glut of undocumented migrants.

Disagreements on immigration ultimately come down to a debate over what America should be and how its economy should work. Though President Johnson promised the law “ will not reshape the structure of our daily lives,” the ensuing shifts in population and migration patterns has indeed meant “big changes in American life,” says Skerry, for good and for ill. The last time politicians hashed out a new immigration system, they didn’t entirely weigh those implications. Today’s leaders would be wise to think about the ripple effect before they mess with the borders.