The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 Turns 50

President Lyndon B. Johnson sits at his desk on Liberty Island in New York Harbor as he signs a new immigration bill, October 1965.

Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in New York City and signed into law the most sweeping U.S. immigration reform to date—The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The law did away with the racially discriminatory national origins quota system, which had governed admissions to the United States since the 1920s, and created what we have today: An immigration system largely based around family reunification and—to a lesser extent—employment-based migration.

Coming just a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in the same year as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act stands as a major achievement of the civil rights era. Whereas the national origins quotas advantaged immigration from Northern and Western Europe and excluded Asian immigrants entirely, the 1965 act opened the doors to immigrants from around the world. In 1965, just under 10 million Americans were foreign-born, a total that constituted 4.8 percent of the U.S. population. Today, that number stands at 45 million, or 13.9 percent of the U.S. population.

Following the end of World War II, it took reformers 20 years of debate, discussion, and compromise to finally end the national origins quota system. The 1965 act, although not without unanticipated consequences, ultimately made the United States a far more multicultural nation than it would otherwise have been. As modern policymakers debate the future of immigration reform, the 1965 act provides important lessons for the path forward.

From racial restriction to a multicultural America

Prior to 1965, the national origins quota system severely restricted the number of immigrants allowed in each year, and roughly 70 percent of the available visas were earmarked for just three countries: the United Kingdom, Germany, and Ireland. Asian immigrants, meanwhile, were almost wholly excluded: For example, The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952—passed into law despite President Harry Truman’s veto—allowed only 2,000 immigrants from the entire continent of Asia to enter the United States. The 1965 act entirely did away with these restrictions.

Members of the Johnson administration believed that immigration would only increase slightly—hence President Johnson’s famous understatement while signing the act into law that “[t]his bill that we sign today is not a revolutionary bill.” Whether or not policymakers expected an increase in immigration after the act, the number of lawful immigrants entering the United States each year significantly rose. By 1981, the average number of immigrants gaining permanent visas had doubled from 1965 levels, roughly reaching 600,000 people per year. This figure rose to around 1 million after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1990.

In the 50 years since the 1965 Act, 59 million people immigrated to the United States from all over the world. Unlike the dominantly European focus of immigration during the national origins quota era, over the past half century, Latin Americans have comprised more than half of all immigrants. Asians immigrants comprised a quarter of this total, whereas immigrants from Europe only made up 12 percent.

Unanticipated consequences

Beyond reshaping immigration to the United States, the 1965 act laid the groundwork for many of the challenges facing the U.S. immigration system today. For example, it contained a provision barring lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, people from immigrating, a restriction that remained in place until 1990. And, while a portion of the increase in overall immigrants came from the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens—parents, spouses, and minor children—whom the act allowed to enter outside of numerical restrictions, many others ran into the hard caps established on visa availability.

With the 1965 act, Congress capped the number of people who could enter the United States from a single country each year at 20,000 as a way to ensure equality among the nations. In doing so, legislators chose to treat immigrants from large countries such as India or China the same as those from small countries such as Luxembourg or Belgium, regardless of population size or emigration needs. This restriction, which has been raised slightly to 25,620, is still part of modern law and is a key reason why immigrants from India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines have some of the longest backlogs and waiting times for a legal visa to enter the United States. Certain family members from the Philippines, for example, would have had to apply for a visa 22 years ago in order to immigrate today, while certain employment-based migrants would have had to apply 11 years ago.

Additionally, prior to 1965, immigrants from the Americas could enter the United States without regard for numerical limitations. The 1965 act, however, imposed the first cap on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. The 120,000 visas that Congress granted to these migrants in 1965 represented a 40 percent reduction from the previous level of immigrants entering the United States from this region. These new limitations, along with the 1964 termination of the bracero program—a notorious and fraught agreement that brought hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants to the United States each year under temporary work visas—made it far harder for immigrants from Mexico and Central America to gain a legal visa to the United States even as demand for their labor continued. Without creating adequate legal avenues, the law set the stage for greater numbers of unauthorized immigrants to enter the country in the ensuing decades.

Following the 1965 act, it took more than 20 years for lawmaker to revisit immigration reform. The Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed in 1986, provided legal status for 3 million unauthorized immigrants and represented the first attempt at setting penalties for those employing people without lawful status. Four years later, the Immigration Act of 1990 raised the overall number of lawful permanent visas granted each year. While these bills represented significant steps forward, neither dealt with issues that had been plaguing the immigration system since 1965—namely, the long visa backlogs or the inadequate employment-based visas for lesser-skilled immigrants. Along with the harsh restrictions on unauthorized immigration that Congress mandated in 1996, these bills contributed to the issues currently facing the U.S. immigration system.

Compromise and continuity

For all of its unanticipated consequences, the 1965 act still stands as a major achievement. Yet, the historical changes it brought about did not appear in a vacuum. Rather, they were the result of sustained reform efforts. Opponents of the national origins quota system introduced reform legislation every year from the early 1950s through 1965. At least seven separate bills passed during that period, creating and widening loopholes within the quota system. Though it took time, by the early 1960s, the weight of the contradictions behind a system that excluded immigrants from wide swaths of the world became evident. Each reform bill that was introduced and each piece of legislation that passed helped to set the stage for comprehensive reform in 1965.

If this process of reform attempt after reform attempt sounds familiar, it should. Over the past decade, the contradictions undergirding the current immigration system have become more apparent than ever. Today, the majority of the 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States have been here for over a decade. Millions of people live in mixed-status families with both authorized and unauthorized members, and scores of families have been separated by detentions and deportations. More than 4.3 million family members and immigrants who possess skills and training needed in the United States are forced to wait years—or even decades—to obtain a visa.

Legislation that would remedy all or some of these issues came close to passing in 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2013. Each of these bills, as well as the countless other pro-immigrant legislation introduced but never acted upon, builds upon its predecessors. Each moves the ball forward. Even if it seems as though comprehensive immigration reform may not resurface until after the 2016 election, the Immigration Act of 1965 shows that small, persistent actions lead to bigger ones and that comprehensive reform, however belatedly, will eventually become a reality.

Philip E. Wolgin is the Associate Director for Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress.