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9 Facts About the Hart-Celler Act

Thulasi Seshan
President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Hart-Celler Act.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Hart-Celler Act. / LBJ Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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America has forever been trying to live up to its founding creed, to the hope of President Washington that “this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.” In 1965, the country took one giant leap in that direction, and it wasn’t Neil Armstrong who got it there.

That year marked the passage of the Hart-Celler Act (formally known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965), immigration reform legislation that irrevocably changed the face of the United States. Here are nine facts you should know about this major bill. 

1. The Hart-Celler Act created Asian America as we know it today.

In The Making of Asian America, Erika Lee writes that “no group benefited more from the act than Asian Americans.” Prior to the passage of Hart-Celler, the majority of American immigrants were white-skinned, and emigrants from Asian countries were either entirely banned from the U.S. or capped in their entry by miniscule quotas.

While the bill’s passage focused on the admittance of Eastern and Southern Europeans, half a century later, its effect on Asian Americans and Latin Americans remains most stark: After the act passed, Asian immigration to the United States exploded. The Indian American population doubled every decade. By the middle of this century, the largest group of new American immigrants will come from Asia, making up an estimated 38 percent of the foreign-born population.

2. The Hart-Celler Act also enacted unprecedented restrictions on Central and South American immigration.

Prior to the passage of Hart-Celler, immigration to the United States from Western Hemisphere countries had been largely unrestricted. You couldn’t be an “illegal” Honduran immigrant, because the bulk of immigration from a Western Hemisphere country was by default legal. By bringing Western Hemisphere immigration under the same, newly-balanced system as immigration from all other countries, Hart-Celler unintentionally disrupted the traditional migration flows between the U.S. and its neighboring Latin American nations. This has led some advocates to call Hart-Celler the bill that “created illegal immigration.” 

3. Hart-Celler is referred to by more than a few names.

Like too much legislation, Hart-Celler is officially called one thing, colloquially called another, and mistakenly called by another half-dozen names. The Immigration and Nationality Act, the 1965 Immigration Act, the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act—it’s all the same thing. Most people refer to the bill as Hart-Celler in honor of its Senate and House sponsors. 

4. Hart-Celler had high approval ratings with the American public when it passed.

According to a Gallup survey, 70 percent of Americans supported the bill in the year it passed. That said, the same survey showed that only 1 to 3 percent of Americans actually thought of immigration as a top issue. So we know the bill was fairly uncontroversial, but whether that’s because it enjoyed widespread support or because Americans weren’t bothered about the issue one way or another, it’s hard to tell from today’s vantage. Congress certainly must have thought their voting public supported the bill, as they passed it overwhelmingly and with strong bipartisan support

5. Politicians saw the bill as a key piece of civil rights legislation.

Attorney General Bobby Kennedy saw the bill as an extension of the push to eliminate discrimination based on national origin. President Johnson proposed the legislation as a part of his overarching anti-poverty “Great Society” agenda, outlined in his 1965 State of the Union speech. Philip Hart, the bill’s Senate sponsor, was also a leader in the fight for the Voting Rights Act to be passed. 

Johnson signed Hart-Celler at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, with all its awesome symbolic power. It was signed only a few months after the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and progressives today continue to tie the civil rights movement and the immigration push together. 

6. Foreign policy considerations also drove the passage of Hart-Celler. 

Secretary of State Dean Rusk, a prominent advocate for the bill, saw the existing quota system as dangerous fodder for communist anti-American propaganda. John F. Kennedy pointed out that the quota system as it stood discriminated against immigrants from NATO countries, a fact that could only weaken the military alliance. As much as the American public appeared not to care about immigration policy at the time, American allies abroad very much did, and it was with this audience in mind that the Hart-Celler Act was shaped.

7. Neither President Johnson nor the bill’s legislative sponsors thought it would radically reshape American immigration. 

People remember the sponsors of the Hart-Celler Act for changing the face of America, for opening the doors to millions of families—but historical evidence indicates the sponsors did not actually intend to do so.

When he signed the bill, President Johnson famously said, "This bill that we will sign today 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." Historian Otis Graham said the ignorance of the bill’s effects ran “three-foot deep.” Graham’s colleague Roger Daniels put it more bleakly: “Had Congress fully understood its consequences, it almost certainly would not have passed.” 

8. Family reunification was centered in the legislation to appease conservative legislators.

The powerful Democratic chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, Michael Feighan of Ohio, was at first staunchly opposed to the bill. His support was eventually won through the famous “Johnson treatment”— LBJ’s trademark mix of bullying and persuasion—and through a twist in the legislation. Originally, immigrants with special skills, like the nuclear physicists of the world, were supposed to receive immigration priority. 

Feighan changed the legislation so that immigrants with family members in the U.S. already would receive priority, centering family reunification. The thinking behind this was that because there were not many African or Asian people living in the U.S. at the time, there would not be many people of color who had families overseas to bring into the country. Instead, family reunification was meant to help ensure that the bulk of the immigrants coming into the country remained white-skinned. This, of course, did not go as planned. 

9. Congressman Emanuel Celler, the bill’s House sponsor, had dedicated his life to ending immigration quotas. 

Celler served in the House of Representatives as the Congressman from Brooklyn for decades. The Democrat was in the House when the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 established the country’s strict, racist quota system of immigration. As a representative of a district full of Eastern European immigrants, and as a Jewish representative himself, Celler cared deeply and passionately about justice in immigration. He spoke furiously against the Johnson-Reed Act when it passed, then fought against its principles for the next four decades, until finally, he was able to sponsor the bill that undid it. 

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