Rescuing LBJ's legacy: The Immigration Act of 1965

Yesterday's New York Times contained an article  by Adam Nagourney about the interest of the Johnson family and their supporters to rehab LBJ's legacy that they view as being unfairly dominated by the Vietnam War.  In particular, the article details the efforts underway to draw attention to many of LBJ's domestic policy achievements which are numerous but always overshadowed by the Vietnam War.  LBJ's domestic legislative achievements are many, varied, and deserve revisiting.  They include: Civil Rights, Medicare, Head Start, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and public broadcasting.  And of course immigration, which many except immigration specialists may not know.

Asked about her father's legacy, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb told The Times

“I think that’s something the historians will look at. But can you think of where we would be without Lyndon Johnson? If we had not passed a civil rights bill? Before Daddy, we didn’t have any federal aid to education. The immigration bill. Think of what we would be like if Daddy hadn’t signed that bill.”

She was referring to The landmark Immigration Act of 1965 which set the basic template for immigration policy that endures to this day. What was so revolutionary about that law? Basically it overturned national origins discrimination. Prior to the 1965 Act, Western Hemisphere countries enjoyed much more generous immigration quotas than the rest of the world. Particularly harsh were restrictions on immigration from countries in the Asia-Pacific triangle (that stretched from the Far East to the Middle East), where each nation was awarded a symbolic quota of 100 persons per nation per year. The Asia-Pacific Triangle policy was an improvement over the ban of Chinese immigrants that began in 1882 (a concession to China as a U.S. ally in WWII), but not much of one since the Triangle policy limited China to an annual quota of 105 persons a year. Meanwhile immigration from Western Hemisphere countries was unrestricted.

The underlying thinking guiding most of pre-1965 U.S. immigration policy was racism and national origins discrimination, essentially the notion that immigrants were desirable or less so based on their nation of origin rather than their actual individual attributes and characteristics.

The Immigration Act of 1965 was a watershed moment in that it cast aside racist national origins considerations. No doubt influenced by the milieu of racial tolerance and a heightened awareness of civil rights, the law was passed a year after The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the same year as The Voting Rights Act of 1965, two of LBJ's other great legacies. The Immigration Act of 1965 scrapped the previous immigration selection system and replaced it with a country-neutral process in which each nation was awarded a quota of 20,000 persons per year, regardless of the size or location of the country. In so doing the 1965 Act removed considerations of national origin from the U.S. immigration system in favor of a country-neutral process that selected immigrants based on their close ties to family members who are U.S. citizens or greencard holders and based on a match with their work abilities and the needs of U.S. employers.

LBJ deserves all credit for this great immigration law. It has changed the complexion of the nation and led to a diversification of immigrants coming to this country, namely an increase in Asian and Latin based immigration. Except for the ill advised Diversity Visa Lottery which I have argued reintroduced national origins considerations, our official immigration policy no longer speaks about the desirability of immigrants based on where they come from.