Politics is a game of unintended consequences.
One needs to look no further than the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
As a San Bernardino immigration lawyer, it is not uncommon to hear immigration activists praise the virtues of the Act.
Yet, a retrospective review reveals that it was politics as usual.
Benevolence was not the foremost consideration of most in Congress.
The Civil Rights Connection: Fact And Fiction
The Act was inspired by the Civil Rights Act as well as our nation’s quest for ethnic diversity and racial equality.
In some political corners, the immigration bill was characterized as a progressive extension of the civil rights movement.
Rep. Philip Burton (D-CA) noted this direct connection during Congressional discussions about the bill:
“Just as we sought to eliminate discrimination in our land through the Civil Rights Act, today we seek by phasing out the national origins quota system to eliminate discrimination in immigration to this nation composed of the descendants of immigrants.”
But was this goal the true motive of the Act’s key sponsors?
The Immigration System Before The 1965 Act
Many scholars point to the obvious.
Before 1965, the United States was 85% white. Today, racial and ethnic minorities make up one-third of the population.
Before 1965, the immigrant stream was largely European.
Under the old system, admission was based on an immigrant’s country of birth.
Seventy percent of all immigrant visas were allotted to just three countries — the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany.
Many visas went unused, which created long waiting lists due to the small number of visas available to those born in Italy, Greece, Poland, Portugal, and elsewhere in Eastern and Southern Europe.
Today, most new arrivals to this country come from Mexico, China, and India.
It’s true the 1965 Act, now 50 years old, made these changes possible.
Yet, these changes were not the intended consequences of many bill supporters – and, in fact, increased diversity was feared by the Act’s opponents.
Lukewarm Democrats: Friends Or Foes?
Similar to those in Congress today, many Democrats were at best lukewarm supporters of immigration reform, supporting the INA for not particularly immigrant-friendly reasons.
Aware that change was inevitable, opponents attempted to promote an employment-based solution to keep the ethnic status quo in place. In their position, it was appropriate to select immigrants on the basis of their national origin.
In fact, the original version of the bill gave immigration preference to people whose skills and training would be “especially advantageous” to the United States.
Along this line, several members of Congress openly expressed that the U.S. was fundamentally an Anglo-Saxon European nation and should remain that way.
This included Democratic Party leaders.
Sen. Spessard Holland (D-FL), an immigration subcommittee member, told his colleagues:
“What I object to is imposing no limitation insofar as areas of the earth are concerned, but saying that we are throwing the doors open and equally inviting people from the Orient, from the islands of the Pacific, from the subcontinent of Asia, from the Near East, from all of Africa, all of Europe, and all of the Western Hemisphere on exactly the same basis. I am inviting attention to the fact that this is a complete and radical departure from what has always heretofore been regarded as sound principles of immigration.”
Holland was not alone.
Other Democrats pushing immigration changes did so in a formalistic and obligatory manner, as a tactic to secure votes from ethnic communities which were growing in political importance through consistent grass roots pressure.
Compassionate reform was not part of their agenda.
In 1965, A Conservative Tried To Keep America White. His Plan Backfired
Tom Gjelten, National Public Radio, October 3, 2015
Senator Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) said he objected to the idea of giving people from Ethiopia the same right to immigrate to the United States as people from England, France, Germany, 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.”
Another Democrat, Rep. Michael Feighan (D-Ohio), the chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, became a major swing vote for reform. He did not agree to give preference to immigrants whose skills were “especially advantageous” to the United States.
Instead, Feighan justified his position by giving priority to those immigrants who already had relatives in the United States, with a new preference category created for adult brothers and sisters of naturalized U.S. citizens.
The Fear Of Unlocked Immigration Floodgates
The Act’s opponents linked their distaste of a diversified immigrant pool to a fear of uncontrollable immigration floodgates, akin to the invading hordes arguments heard today.
Supporters responded with meek assertions that the Act, if passed, would not lead to an increase of immigrants gaining legal residency.
According to Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-NY), one of the bill’s sponsors:
“With the end of discrimination due to place of birth, there will be shifts in countries other than those of northern and western Europe. Immigrants from Asia and Africa will have to compete and qualify in order to get in, quantitatively and qualitatively, which, itself will hold the numbers down. There will not be, comparatively, many Asians or Africans entering this country. .. .Since the people of Africa and Asia have very few relatives here, comparatively few could immigrate from those countries because they have no family ties in the U.S.”
Even Edward Kennedy felt compelled to respond in similar fashion:
“First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same … Secondly, the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset … Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and deprived nations of Africa and Asia … In the final analysis, the ethnic pattern of immigration under the proposed measure is not expected to change as sharply as the critics seem to think.”
His brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, also chimed in, telling the House Immigration Subcommittee:
“I would say for the Asia-Pacific Triangle [immigration] would be approximately 5,000 . . . after which immigration from that source would virtually disappear; 5,000 immigrants would come the first year, but we do not expect that there would be any great influx after that.”
In other words, the Act would not lead to an increase of foreigners allowed into the United States and a family-based unification preference system would favor those nationalities already represented in the American population.
The existing racial and ethnic composition would remain relatively the same.
Stealing Jobs From Americans . . . In 1965
In addition, 1965 immigration reform opponents raised public concerns that immigration would take jobs away from American workers and increase spending on welfare and other social services.
For instance, Myra C. Hacker, the Vice President of the New Jersey Coalition, provided testimony at a Senate immigration subcommittee hearing which could have been taken directly from Donald Trump’s playbook:
“In light of our 5% unemployment rate, our worries over the so called population explosion, and our menacingly mounting welfare costs, are we prepared to embrace so great a horde of the world’s unfortunates?”
“At the very least, the hidden mathematics of the bill should be made clear to the public so that they may tell their Congressmen how they feel about providing jobs, schools, homes, security against want, citizen education, and a brotherly welcome … for an indeterminately enormous number of aliens from underprivileged lands.”
“We should remember that people accustomed to such marginal existence in their own land will tend to live fully here, to hoard our bounteous minimum wages and our humanitarian welfare handouts … lower our wage and living standards, disrupt our cultural patterns.”
“Whatever may be our benevolent intent toward many people, [the bill] fails to give due consideration to the economic needs, the cultural traditions, and the public sentiment of the citizens of the United States.”
In the 1960s, if I recall history correctly, the U.S. was in the midst of an economic boom and conducting a war against poverty.
The 1965 Immigration Act: Lessons For Reformers Today
As history unfolded, the family-oriented system opened the door for immigrants from throughout the world to enter the United States.
However, the Ervin-Feighan ideal never died. Just a few years ago, the proposed immigration reform measure, S.744, was based on transforming our family-based immigration system to an economic-based system.
Just last week, similar “skills based” noises were again being made in Washington as the solution to our immigration reform divide.
As a family immigration attorney, I feel these types of noises should cause heightened concerns in immigration reform circles.
Unfortunately, I do not sense such sentiments among most colleagues.
Instead, I hear far too many reform proponents, especially immigration activists and lawyers, supporting such nefarious notions.
They seem oblivious to the revival of old ideas recast as new ideas.
The concept of “merits-based”, “skills-based”, or “employment-based” immigration replacing a system based on family unification is a subtle means of returning back to a xenophobic-based system – a system which promotes immigrants from more industrialized nations over those from nations which are in greater need of a helping hand.
To state it bluntly, merits-based reform is xenophobic-based immigration.
It’s often said that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.
In many ways, 1965 lives again. Lukewarm Democratic Party support of pro-immigrant family legislation – coupled with opponents’ efforts to raise public fears of invading hordes, loss of jobs, dependency on welfare and other subsidized programs – harkens back to the birth of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Will immigrant supporters see the connection before it’s too late?
Then again, whatever is passed may lead to outcomes quite different – perhaps better, perhaps worse – than what any of us foresee at present.
By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics