Incredibly, one of the most disruptive laws in American history was a political afterthought. In fact, most Americans ignored the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 when they passed it.
Today, we remember the man responsible for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) as the architect of Medicare, the enabler of Civil Rights, and the man responsible for the Vietnam War. However, the changes the Immigration Act did more to create today’s America than anything else Johnson did.
Between 1924 and 1965, the Johnson-Reed Act; or Immigration Act of 1924,restricted immigration to small numbers of people from Western Europe. The authors wrote the Johnson-Reed Act to stop the enormous wave of European immigration between the 1890s and the 1920s.
The Johnson-Reed Act
Racism, xenophobia, religious prejudice, and cynical politics drove the Johnson-Reed Act. During the early 20th Century, many white Protestants were afraid Catholic and Jewish immigrants would soon take over the country.
Politics played a role because Catholic immigrants voted Democrat. During the early 1920s, some formerly reliable Republican locales; including Brooklyn, began turning Democrat. One way to stop the rising Democratic tide was to restrict emigration.
The effects of the Johnson-Reed Act were enormous. The law cut American industry off from its supply of cheap immigrant labor from Europe. Industry’s response to emigration restriction let to profound changes.
First, many industrialists began tapping a source of cheap labor at home, poor black people from the South. Thus, the Johnson-Reed Act drove the Great Migration of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western cities.
Second, some industrialists, mostly in the textile industry, began moving factories South. In the South, those industrialists tapped another source of cheap labor: poor white Southerners. Thus, a large white working class began developing in the South.
One attraction of the South for industrialists was its hostility to unions. Right-to-Work laws, police repression, and Jim Crow racism kept unions out of most Southern states.
The War Against Johnson-Reed
The Johnson-Reed Act succeeded, but it left a nasty taste in the mouths of many ethnic voters in the North. Italian Americans, in particular, hated the law because it kept their relatives out of the United States.
World War II and its aftermath gave birth to a powerful coalition against immigration restriction. Jewish Americans wanted America open to Holocaust survivors, Poles and other Eastern Europeans wanted America open to refugees from the Communist occupation of Eastern European.
Meanwhile, racist immigration laws gave America’s Cold War enemy a powerful propaganda tool against the United States. The Soviets could paint America as racist by noting that most non-white people were kept out of the USA.
Many politicians, including a young John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) found that repealing Johnson-Reed attracted votes. Running for Congress in Massachusetts, Kennedy found that Johnson-Reed repeal was almost the only issue Italian-American voters cared about.
Here Comes LBJ
When he became President in 1961, Johnson-Reed repeal was high on Kennedy’s agenda.
However, Kennedy lacked the political skill to steer such a dramatic reform through Congress. On the other hand, Kennedy’s successor Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) had those skills. Johnson knew Congress well because he had been an effective US Senate majority leader.
Johnson capitalized on Kennedy’s tragic assassination to win an impressive victory in the 1964 presidential election. The 486 Electoral College vote majority he won, gave LBJ a mandate to implement an ambitious agenda.
That agenda included Medicare, Medicaid, Civil Rights, and a War on Poverty. To pass his Great Society, however, LBJ needed political support from conservative white ethnic voters in the North and Midwest.
How George Wallace Helped Liberalize Immigration
Although white ethnics were historically Democratic, their loyalty was shifting. During the 1940s and 1950s, Republicans won a lot of Catholic support with U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s (R-Wisconsin) anti-Communist crusade.
More recently, racist Governor George Wallace (D-Alabama) gave LBJ a nasty surprise in 1964. During the 1964 Democratic Presidential Primary, Wallace took his segregationist show on the road to Wisconsin.
Campaigning in Milwaukee, Wallace made a direct appeal to white ethnic voters. The Alabama governor’s pitch to white ethnics was simple, blacks are the enemy and we need to unite against them.
At one well-covered event, a Serbian Polka band played Dixie for the Alabama governor. Wallace won 672,984 votes in Wisconsin’s 1964 Democratic Presidential primary.
Wallace’s strong showing convinced LBJ that he needed to take strong action to ensure white ethnic votes in the North. One sure-fire way to attract those votes was to repeal Johnson-Reed. Hence, Democrats put the Immigration and Nationality Act on the Congressional fast track.
One reason for the fast track was Johnson’s correct and possibly fictional observation that Democrats had lost the South for a generation because of Civil Rights. Hence, Northern White ethnics were more important to Democrats than ever.
An After Thought that Changed America
The Immigration and Nationality Act was a total overhaul of America’s immigration system. Yet, there was little debate about it in Congress and the law received no attention from the press.
On 25 August 1964, the US House of Representatives passed the Act with a 318 to 95 vote. In the US Senate, author Jia Lynn Yang notes the Act received significant criticism from only two men.
US Senator Sam Ervin (D-North Carolina) correctly predicted that the act could lead to unrestricted immigration that could transform America, Yang writes in her history One Mighty and Irresistible Tide. Similarly, US Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois) feared a wave of immigrants from developing countries in Latin America.
The Senate; however, ignored Evrin and Dirksen for political reasons. Both Republicans and Democrats were courting white ethnic voters who wanted immigration reform.
Instead, most of Congress and the media believed the Act would accomplish two goals. First, make it easier for immigrants to bring their relatives to America, a popular cause in urban America. Second, eliminate archaic racist restrictions that offended some of America’s Cold War allies.
It was this narrative Johnson had in mind when he signed the Immigration and Nationality Act for TV cameras at the Statue of Liberty on 3 October 1965. Tellingly, Johnson made the signing a media circus intended to appeal to white ethnics. Yang notes LBJ had wanted to hold the ceremony at Ellis Island, but that facility was abandoned and too decrepit to host the president in 1965.
Once the law passed, most people forgot about it and relegated America’s immigration age to history. History, however, proved Ervin right and did it with a vengeance.
A New America
The hope of many of the Immigration and Nationality Act’s backers was a fresh wave of European immigrants who could revitalize America’s decaying ethnic neighborhoods.
Instead, what happened what was a flood of Asian, Latin American, African, and Middle Eastern migrants. Historical hindsight offers several reasons for that flood of immigrants.
By 1965, social democracy and capitalism were transforming Western Europe and giving many Europeans a middle-class lifestyle that rivaled or exceeded that of Americans. Hence, there was little reason for the average Western European to immigrate after 1965.
Meanwhile, the jet engine made fast air travel to the United States from almost any place on Earth possible. Hence, any enterprising immigrant who could scratch together a few hundred dollars and get a passport could come to America.
One result of the 1965 Act was enormous numbers of Asian immigrants. Before 1965, America’s Asian population outside Hawaii was tiny. There were small communities of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people in some American cities. There were almost no Indians, Vietnamese, or other Asians in America.
New immigrants began arriving from many countries. Once those immigrants settled in America, they could use the Act to bring their families. Thus, 1971 became the first year in which Asian immigrants to the United States outnumbered European immigrants.
By the early 21st Century, America had become a different place. For example, Indian Americans, a tiny group before 1965, are now an influential minority.
Two former governors Bobby Jindal (R-Louisiana) and Nickey Haley (R-South Carolina) and a Vice President Kamala Harris (D-California) are of Indian descent. Tellingly, Jindal was a presidential candidate in 2016, Harris was a presidential candidate in 2020, and pundits often mention Haley as a strong presidential prospect for 2024. The CEOs of major corporations including Alphabet (GOOGL), Microsoft (MSFT), and MasterCard (MA) are also of Indian descent.
Meanwhile, there are now large Asian populations in many states including New Jersey, Nevada, Colorado, Georgia, and Illinois. Formerly, white enclaves including Northern Virginia and Orange County, California, are majority nonwhite. Politically, those regions are trending blue, which would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
In 2019, the US Census Bureau estimated that 5.9% of the US population was Asian, and 18.5% of the US population was Hispanic or Latino. Similarly, 23.7% of the US population was nonwhite in 2019, the US Census Bureau estimates.
Moreover, the Brookings Institute projects the United States will become a majority nonwhite nation in 2045. In that year, 50.3% of Americans will be nonwhite. One reason for that development is the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
Seldom has such a consequential law raised so little controversy or debate. The story of the Immigration and Nationality Act should teach us to pay attention to everything Congress does. We need to remember that the most disruptive laws are often those the pundits ignore.