By: Caleb Galaraga
In the 1920s, Filipinos like me could easily travel to and from the United States. My country was a colony of America at that time and a good number of Filipinos migrated to fill agricultural jobs in Hawaii and California. But most people from Asia, with the exception of Japan, would have no success immigrating to America. The passage of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 established national-origin quotas for most of the world – and shut the doors to immigrants from that region.
Race and geography were the determinants on who would be admitted to the United States. Those from Northwest Europe and Scandinavia, especially Germany, Great Britain and Ireland would have 70 percent of the annual immigration quota allotted to them— more than 100,000 slots. In contrast, Turkey and Syria would have a quota of 100 each. No slots at all were allocated for most of Asia. Even Filipinos were not exempt from the closed doors. After the Tydings-McDuffie Act was passed, granting independence to the Philippines, immigration from the then colony was limited to 50 per year.
But on October 3, 1965, a new immigration law was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on Liberty Island. H.R. 2580 abolished national-origin quotas. Immigration moving forward would be tied to family relations and employer sponsorships, opening the United States to the rest of the world. The law also allowed those fleeing persecution and conflict to find refuge in the country.
The author of H.R. 2580 was Representative Emanuel Celler, who represented a Brooklyn district from Mar. 4, 1923 to Jan. 3, 1973. It was sponsored in the senate by Michigan Senator Philip Hart, described as the “Conscience of the Senate” by his colleagues from both parties for his support for civil rights and environmental protection legislation. Both were Democrats.
A copy of the final law that was passed and the pen that President Johnson used to sign it can all be found at the Emanuel Celler Collection at the Brooklyn Public Library near Grand Army Plaza. Most of what’s in the collection are from Mr. Celler’s more personal valuables and was donated by his daughter Jane Wertheimer. The rest of the congressman’s archives can be found at the Library of Congress in D.C. I visited the archive to learn more about the author of the law and about the great turning point in America’s acceptance of immigrants. I left with a new mystery.
The Brooklyn archives contained correspondence, certificates, notes and clippings as well as plaques and other mementos. All materials can only be reviewed in a special room in the library dedicated for archival materials.
As I delved into one of the boxes, I found clippings, two small diaries each not bigger than two matchboxes containing jokes and quotes—an idea book of sort for speeches he’d be delivering later on – and even a profile from the Thomas Brady, Inc. Speakers Bureau designed to market Celler to event planners and organizers. “Congressman Celler is well versed on many of the important topics of the day, his speaking from experience will make any function a complete success,” the profile reads.
There was also an oversized and aging picture frame holding the full profile of Celler in a 1969 weekend issue of the Christian Science Monitor, headlined, “He does his homework.” The story noted highlights from Celler’s nearly four decades in Congress. Reporter Lyn Shepard wrote that “even Southern critics of his civil-rights views pay grudging tribute to Mr. Celler’s talents.”
Another clipping from the weekly New York Sunday News of June 9, 1968 features a picture of Johnson and the congressman, with the caption, “President presents the first pen to Celler after signing the 1968 Civil Rights Act.” The latter was a follow-up to the more renowned Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was passed days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The 1968 law made it illegal for property owners to discriminate against potential tenants or buyers of property because of their race, religion, national origin or sex.
In one box was a plaque given to the congressman by the United HIAS Service, an agency that rescues and protects Jewish refugees, for the lawmaker’s “inspiring leadership in the liberalization of our immigration law.” As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Celler was instrumental in passing the post-World War II Displaced Persons Act that opened America’s doors to more than 300,000 displaced persons, many of whom were Jews, as well as the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act.
But in the Christian Science Monitor profile, when Shepard asked Celler what pieces of legislation he was most proud of, he did not include the 1965 immigration law.
“The prominent ones were the  immigration law for displaced persons and, in the economic area, the Celler-Kefauver Act,” he said. The latter legislation bolstered antitrust laws by allowing the government to prevent mergers. “But I pride myself on the fact that I am the principal House author of three constitutional amendments.” Those were the 23rd, 24th and 25th amendments, which did away with the poll tax, granted voting rights to D.C. residents in presidential elections, and provided for the next-in-line in case of the disability of the president, respectively. “Those are the three that bear my name, and I’m very proud of them,” he said.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was downplayed as “not a revolutionary bill” by Johnson himself. When he signed it at around 3 p.m. that day in October, he claimed that the policy “says simply that from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here.”
But that policy changed the complexion of America and redefined what it means to be American. To this day, it is referred to by scholars, historians and activists using the name of the bill’s author and cosponsor or simply, the Hart-Celler Act. The mystery is why neither its author nor the pro-civil rights president who signed it considered it very important.