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  • “Americans Must Show Justice in Immigration Policies Too”:The Passage of the 1965 Immigration Act

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 at the Statue of Liberty, the often-bombastic president appeared unusually modest regarding this landmark bill. Indeed, in signing legislation that overturned the draconian immigration system that had been established in the 1920s, Johnson took pains to explain what the legislation would not do: it was “not a revolutionary bill,” it would “not affect the lives of millions,” and it would not “reshape the structure of our daily lives.”1 What has since become clear, however, is that the 1965 immigration law did exactly that. That Johnson appeared to undersell his achievement becomes all the more remarkable considering that the legislation he signed remains the foundation of U.S. immigration policy. The debate and the negotiations that led to its passage thus profoundly shaped the U.S. government’s approach to immigration reform and the present obstacles that impede meaningful reform legislation.

An examination of the negotiations that led to the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act reveals how interest groups and individual members of the U.S. Congress can take advantage of Congress’s institutional procedures to influence the political process.2 The key positions held by many of the congressmen who participated in the final negotiations gave them disproportionate influence over the final bill and limited the agency of reform [End Page 219] advocates and their congressional allies, ultimately accounting for many of the dysfunctions that emerged once the law went into effect. Exploiting the administration’s eagerness to abolish the national origins quota system and carry out reform swiftly, a group of Southern Democrats, who realized reform was inevitable, leveraged its votes and committee positions to obtain crucial concessions from Johnson, the most important of which was the unprecedented imposition of a ceiling on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. The passage of this law, like that of much of the Great Society legislation, reflected not only the growing political clout of new constituencies but also the limits of this influence and the failure to create a political environment in which all interested parties enjoyed the same amount of power at the negotiating table.

While many Americans today blame the 1965 Immigration Act for what they see as the end of restriction and the country’s loss of control over its borders, migration and policy scholars have demonstrated that the law was hardly a paragon of liberal immigration reform. While they concur that the law successfully abolished the national origins quota system and the discriminatory Asia-Pacific Triangle—immigration reformers’ primary goal—they also note that it created new restrictions with its imposition of the first global ceiling on immigration to the United States. Moreover, they observe that while the law’s liberal provisions ushered in a wave of chain migrations from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East that literally changed the face of American society, the first cap on immigrants from the Americas paved the way for today’s dominant immigration issue: ever-rising rates of unauthorized entry and illegal residence.

Previous scholars have explained this contradiction in three different ways. Irving Bernstein, Roger Daniels, and Daniel Tichenor, for example, argue that Johnson understood that the window of opportunity for liberal legislation was fleeting and skillfully took advantage of the convergence of a Democratic landslide election with what Daniels terms “a national consensus of egalitarianism” to pass a flawed but nonetheless momentous immigration law.3 Dissenting from this interpretation, Mae Ngai and Aristide Zolberg contend that the ease with which reformers accepted the ceiling on immigration from the Western Hemisphere reflected their long-standing ambivalence about immigrants from the Third World. According to this view, East Coast reformers, disconnected from and unfamiliar with the Asian, Mexican, and Latin American communities in the United States, willingly acquiesced to an immigration law that continued a regime of restriction to protect the status of [End Page 220] their own ethnic communities in American society.4 Finally, Otis Graham argues that, in their eagerness to repeal the national origins quota system, immigration reformers intentionally ignored information...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4190
Print ISSN
0898-0306
Pages
pp. 219-245
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-25
Open Access
No
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