The legacy of the 1965 Act, 50 years later

October 3, 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  Unlike the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the 1965 Immigration Act is much lesser known in the popular consciousness, but it should be, given the dramatic changes it has brought about by shifting the U.S. immigration selection system from a racist logic that privileged northern and western Europeans, and one that shut out most of the developing world, to one that is national origin's neutral.

LBJ and the framers did not anticipated the 1965 Act bringing about the kind of sweeping changes that it did.  Still, he and the framers were savvy enough to tap into the spirit of ethnic and racial tolerance that swept the nation in the mid-1960s to pass the Act.  They also cited the impetus that the discriminatory national origins immigration selection system was hampering the nation's foreign policy standing around the world as we tried to claim that we were the "good guys" while we still had a racially discriminatory immigration system.  But as he stood before the Statue of Liberty signing the bill, he said, "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." He simply believed that by moving away from a national-origins based selection process was an act of fairness.  At the signing ceremony, he stated:

This bill 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.
This is a simple test, and it is a fair test. Those who can contribute most to this country--to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit--will be the first that are admitted to this land.

The selection system implemented in 1965, in which each nation is granted a 20,000 per country quota, and by which immigrants are selected based on the dual priorities of family reunification or job skills remains intact today.  LBJ and his congressional colleagues were very wrong about the 1965 Act not being revolutionary.  In fact it changed the complexion of America; they simply did not anticipated that it would be Indian, Mexican, Chinese, and Nigerian applicants who would be applying and entering through employment and family visa categories instead of the old white European immigrants.

The Pew Research Center has just released some statistics in time to commemorate the 50 Anniversary of the 1965 Act.  Their data illustrate conclusively the effects of the 1965 Act.  While both large waves of immigrants to the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth century were dominated by white ethnic Europeans, since the passage of the 1965 Act, half the immigrants to the U.S. are from Latin America and one-quarter are from Asia. Another way to assess the effect of the 1965 Act is this way:

In 1965, 84% of Americans were non-Hispanic whites. By 2015, that share had declined to 62%. Meanwhile, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population rose from 4% in 1965 to 18% in 2015. Asians also saw their share rise, from less than 1% in 1965 to 6% in 2015.

There is no doubt the 1965 has changed the demographics of America with broad implications for our cultural and political system.  I urge everyone to read the extensive Pew Report for themselves which contains a plethora of data including profiles of the immigrant wave today and polling about Americans' views on immigration.

Trump and the GOP primary field are not really putting forward policies about how to solve the undocumented immigration problem.  Proposals such as building a wall, mass deportation, repealing birthright citizenship, having Fedex track immigrants like packages and admonishing immigrants to learn English and assimilate are not serious solutions to the complex phenomenon of undocumented immigration.  What they are instead are reactionary flailing against the sea of cultural and racial changes wrought by the 1965 Act and the sense of unease and dispossession some whites and even non-whites feel about the browning of America.  Those feelings are also exacerbated by a fragile economic recovery and their perceptions of labor market competition from immigrants (both undocumented and documented) who are a different color or are more recent immigrants than themselves.