Immigration is now at the roiling center of the 2016 presidential campaign conversation, thanks largely to Donald Trump, whose unlikely command of the Republican race is based in good part on his take on the immigration question. Trump’s outrageous lies and shocking prescriptions—build a wall along the entire southern border, deport 11 million people, repeal birthright citizenship—are decidedly fringe notions. Yet he has succeeded in stoking nativist and racist sentiment in the party’s base and pushed the entire Republican field to the right. One wonders whether Trump will next call for sending the Statue of Liberty back to France.
It was at the base of this famous symbol, exactly 50 years ago, that President Lyndon Johnson capped a very different moment in the nation’s immigration history. Flanked by Hubert Humphrey, Jackie Kennedy, Senators Robert and Edward Kennedy, and a coterie of other congressional supporters, Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and reclaimed the idea that America was a nation that welcomed immigrants. Over the next five decades, 59 million people would make their way to the United States, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest report on immigration, issued on September 28. They would come from China, the Philippines, India, Lebanon, Pakistan, Brazil—from almost every country on the globe—dramatically shifting the country’s racial and ethnic landscape. Today, the foreign-born account for nearly 14 percent of the total population, a proportion we have not seen since the 1910s. What’s more, 88 percent of immigrants now come from non-European countries, the exact inverse of immigrants’ origins in 1960.
The Hart-Celler Act did have its deficits and inconsistencies, with which we are still grappling today. As much as it smoothed the way for many immigrants, it ended up making the path harder for others. But if the law had serious flaws, it was nonetheless the most dramatic rethinking of immigration policy in the last half-century and, as such, an effort whose achievements and pitfalls we would do well to study today, as we navigate our own immigration debate.
First, what it accomplished. When Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act, he hailed it as a milestone for civil rights—and, in many ways, it was. The signal achievement of the act was to abolish the noxious quota system, in effect since 1924, which numerically restricted immigration and allocated visas for permanent residents (green cards) according to national origin and race. The quota structure favored immigration from Northern and Western Europe, restricted it from Eastern and Southern Europe, and excluded Asians altogether. The 1965 immigration act got rid of this blatantly racist system and replaced it with one based on individual qualifications, giving preference to those with skills and those with family members in the United States. To further make the system fair, it set a uniform cap on all countries at 7 percent of the annual total. The emphasis on individual merit and on treating all nations the same was a quintessential expression of the civil-rights ethos of the time.