The Story Behind the Immigration Law that Transformed the Nation


The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, authored by Brooklyn lawmaker Emanuel Celler, was passed in August 1965. It is also known as the Hart-Celler Act, after Celler and its co-author and sponsor in the Senate, Democratic Senator Philip Hart. It was a significant piece of legislation – but its potential effects were played down by its supporters, including President Lyndon Johnson. “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions,” President Johnson said at the signing ceremony. In fact, the Hart-Celler Act would change the complexion and the economy of the United States. This chapter looks at how Johnson and Celler overcame conservative opposition to enact the immigration law that transformed America.

The Fight to Open Doors

America was still in mourning on January 8, 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson delivered his first State of the Union address. Fewer than 50 days had passed since the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Despite the somber mood, Johnson set out a challenge for America’s lawmakers. “Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined,” he said. Speaking for just 24 minutes, he declared all-out war on poverty, described economic reforms and initiatives his administration would undertake and made clear his stance on the country’s racial divide. “All of these increased opportunities–in employment, in education, in housing, and in every field–must be open to Americans of every color,” he declared.  

Johnson also spoke about immigration reform, consistent with a message Kennedy sent to Congress a few years earlier. Kennedy wrote that the existing system was  “an anachronism” that “discriminates among applicants for admission into the United States on the basis of the accident of birth,” and that it was time to abolish the national-origin quotas for immigrants set down in the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. That law allocated nearly all immigration visas to people from northern and western European countries. The quota system, Kennedy had said, had no basis in logic or reason.

“A nation that was built by the immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission: ‘What can you do for our country?’” Johnson told Congress. “But we should not be asking: ‘In what country were you born?’” The president urged Congress to “lift by legislation the bars of discrimination against those who seek entry into our country, particularly those who have much needed skills and those joining their families.”

Kennedy’s aspiration and now Johnson’s immigration agenda had an ally in Emanuel Celler, a Democrat who had represented Brooklyn, New York in the House for over 40 years. Celler’s first major speech on the House floor was an unsuccessful call to vote down the 1924 immigration bill. Celler introduced a 1948 law that allowed up to 339,000 refugees from Europe to come to the United States. Five days after Johnson’s speech, Celler introduced the administration-backed H.R. 2580, aimed at abolishing the national-origin quotas.

Michael Feighan, an Ohio Democrat and chairman of the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, would not endorse H.R. 2580. He had held public hearings in his congressional district, including parts of Cleveland, Ohio, where support for immigration reform was low. He barely spoke to Celler.  But Feighan received what was known as the “Johnson Treatment,” which included bringing Feighan with him on a trip to Ohio aboard Air Force One.

It took seven weeks for the pressure to work. On March 3, Feighan’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Nationality opened hearings on Celler’s bill. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, the first speaker, gave three  reasons for hastening its passage: the need to eliminate a system separating families, the need to remove barriers that prevented “brilliant and skilled residents of other countries” from working in the United States,” and the importance of ending discrimination against countries in Southern and Eastern Europe and Asia. “Under present law, we choose among potential immigrants not on the basis of what they contribute to our society or to our economic strength,” Katzenbach said. “We choose, instead, on the basis of where they—or in some cases even their ancestors—happened to be born.”

Katzenbach, who’d been an adviser to John F. Kennedy and the No. 2 at the Justice Department when Robert Kennedy was attorney general, added, “There is little logic or consistency in such a choice, when we proclaim to all the peoples of the world that every man is born equal and that in America every man is free to demonstrate his individual talents.”

Conservatives – from both parties – tried to block the bill. The American Committee on Immigration Policies printed a pamphlet asking the public send letters to senators and representatives demanding that they maintain national quotas and to reject the bill. “Our liberty and our free society, based upon a balance of the numbers and kinds of people in our country, can be drowned in a matter of years by a human tidal wave,” it warned. Quotas, it said, would assure “the continuity of the cultural pattern upon which our free institutions and our free society rest.”

Senator Sam Ervin, a Democrat from North Carolina who had led fillibusters against Johnson’s civil rights bills, was against the idea of giving people from Ethiopia the same right to come to the United States as people from Germany, England, France or Holland. “With all due respect to Ethiopia,” Ervin said, “I don’t know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.”

A month into the hearings, Celler paid out of his own pocket to publish a reprint of his remarks to the committee, entitled “Many Misinformed on Pending Immigration Revision Proposal.” In it, he rejected the claim that the bill would let in hordes of Africans and Asiatics. “With the ending of discrimination by place of birth, there will be some shift of immigration to countries other than the ones in Northern Europe which are now favored by the national origins system,” he wrote. “But quota immigrants will have to compete and to qualify to get in, and quota immigrants will not be predominantly from Asia and Africa.”

Senator Edward Kennedy, the last remaining brother of the family, pushed for the bill’s passage. Philip Hart, the “Conscience of the Senate,” known for his favorable stance towards strengthening civil rights and liberties, was the bill’s co-sponsor in the upper chamber.

However,  Johnson made a concession to get the bill passed. Feighan, wanting to appease his conservative followers while also supporting the reform, submitted an amendment. The administration version of the bill gave priority to potential immigrants with skills in demand by American employers, thus opening the nation’s doors to a foreign workforce wherever it might come from.  Feighan’s amendment gave higher priority to immigrants joining family members in the United States. Feighan saw the change as preserving the quota system, since most American citizens were of European ancestry and would therefore be eligible to bring relatives from the “right” countries. The White House accepted the amendment with little discussion. House Judiciary Committee minority member Arch A. Moore, a Republican from West Virginia, wrote in a note to his colleagues that “H.R. 2580 was completely rewritten by the subcommittee and can be described as a bipartisan measure.”

The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Celler, approved the amended version by a 27-4 vote on August 3, 1965. But its evolution to a family-unification measure caused Celler and its original supporters to see it as more of a ceremonial measure to abolish the discriminatory quotas than a concrete overhaul of the immigration system.

“It is a basic objective again, I emphasize, of this bill to choose fairly among the applicants for admission to this country without proposing any substantial change in the amount of authorized immigration,” Celler said in an press release celebrating the committee vote.

“There is no piece of legislation before the Congress that in terms of decency and equity is more demanding of passage than the immigration bill,” Johnson wrote to House Speaker John McCormack on August 25, the day that the House voted on H.R. 2580. “Four presidents have urged this kind of legislation. Four decades have been witness to this kind of need. Countless Americans with ties of family and heritage reaching beyond the seas have cried out for this kind of action. Our present restrictions say that Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, all the southern European countries in particular, are not as desirable as others. What a shameful declaration.”

When the House began the debate for the bill that day, Celler opened with the statement: “The theory of national origins quota is antiquated, unworkable and unscientific… It was devised after World War I in an atmosphere of fear, almost of hysteria.” The House passed the measure 318 to 95. The Senate then approved the reform on September 22.

Because of Feighan’s amendments, Celler, Johnson and even Kennedy said it would not lead to much change in the country’s composition.

“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 really add importantly to either our wealth or our power. Yet it still is one of the most important acts of this Congress and this administration,” Johnson declared when he signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 on October 3 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

Later asked by Christian Science Monitor reporter Lyn Shephard about his greatest legislative achievements, Celler did not mention the 1965 immigration measure. “I pride myself on the fact that I am the principal House author of three constitutional amendments,” Celler told Shephard, referring to 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 succession in case of the death or disability of the president. He also noted the 1948 immigration law for displaced persons, and the Celler-Kefauver Act, which strengthened antitrust laws by allowing the government to prevent mergers. “Those are the three that bear my name, and I’m very proud of them,” Celler said.

But the 1965 law would change the complexion of America. In the fifty years following its signing, about 59 million people came to the United States thanks to its provisions. Many came from countries from which immigration was previously barred, including China, India, Lebanon, Pakistan and Brazil. A 2015 Pew Research Center study noted that the foreign-born accounted for nearly 14 percent of the total population of America that year, and 8 out of 10 immigrants were from non-European countries. Asia and Africa accounted for a substantial number. Declining interest among Europeans in moving to America were reasons helps explain these numbers.

“The legislators really saw this… as a symbolic reform to remove the stigma of the national origin quotas,” said Dr. Mae Ngai, one of America’s foremost experts on the Hart-Celler Act. The law was intended to make America more welcoming to Eastern Europeans, Jews, Italians, and Greeks among other nationalities outside of Northern and Western Europe. They reformers “did not see [it] increasing the volume of immigration significantly,” she said, and in particular did not foresee increased immigration from Asia.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, Asians only represented five percent of the foreign-born population in 1960. No one foresaw the factors that would cause a significant number of Asian immigrants to bring their families. Feighan and other conservatives assumed that with the emphasis on family unification, Americans of European ancestry would exploit most of the visa allotments.

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