A Law of Unintended Consequences: The Ironies, the Tragedies, and the Triumphs of the 1965 Immigration Act

American Committee on Italian Migration Records, IHRC159, File 62, University of Minnesota
American Committee on Italian Migration Records, IHRC159, File 62, University of Minnesota
American Committee on Italian Migration Records, IHRC159, File 62, University of Minnesota

On October 3, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed what became, in retrospect, one of the most influential pieces of legislation not only from his own administration, but in the post-1945 history of the nation. “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,” the President told an audience of dignitaries, politicians, and other on lookers at New York’s Liberty Island. “Yet it is still one of the most important acts of this Congress and of this administration.”

Indeed, over the past decade or two, it has become an article of faith that the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act has played no small part in reshaping the nation’s demographics, leading to large increases in America’s Asian, Latino, and African populations. According to demographers, by 2055 the U.S. will reach majority minority status, meaning no one racial group will make up more than 50% of its population. In 1965, 84% of the U.S. population was white, while today the figure is only 62%. If in 1965, the country’s colors could be described as largely black and white, today its national complexion spans an array of hues. While many celebrate the emergence of a truly multiracial America, others (as demonstrated by recent political debates) feel less charitable toward this demographic turn.

Over the past week or so a range of articles, including this one from the Economist’s October 3, 2015 edition, have highlighted the law’s impact in creating one of the nation’s fastest growing demographics, Asian America. President Johnson’s signing of the law swept “away a system that favored white Europeans over other races,” writes the newspaper. Yet as illustrated by the October 1 panel in the “What It Means to be American” series, sponsored in part by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square (ZPS), the intent and legacy of the 1965 Act proves far more complex.

In fact, nuance and complexity took a seat squarely in the middle of a 45-minute discussion of the Hart-Celler Act as a packed room of over 100 at University of California’s D.C. (UCDC) last Thursday listened on. Consisting of respected policy and immigration experts—Mae Ngai, Erika Lee, Matthew Garcia, and Richard Alba and moderated by ZPS Executive Director Gregory Rodriguez—the panel debated the law’s merits, limitations, and consequences. While the discussion covered a wide range of topics related to the subject, ToM has tried to boil it down to perhaps five main themes.


  1. Intentions Differ from Consequences

“When the earliest settlers poured into a wild continent there was no one to ask them where they came from. The only question was: Were they sturdy enough to make the journey, were they strong enough to clear the land, were they enduring enough to make a home for freedom, and were they brave enough to die for liberty if it became necessary to do so? And so it has been through all the great and testing moments of American history. Our history this year we see in Viet-Nam. Men there are dying—men named Fernandez and Zajac and Zelinko and Mariano and McCormick.”

— Lyndon B. Johnson, Oct 3, 1965 Liberty Island, NYC

One of the most interesting aspects of discussion dealt with the 1965 act’s intent. In LBJ’s 1965 speech at the official signing, he made explicit reference to the fact that European whites had settled “a wild continent” apparently absent of residents, depending on strength, courage, and inner fortitude. In addition to the unsurprising whitewashing of the continent’s pre-colonial history, LBJ’s oratory signaled a second, key insight into the law’s purpose. The Vietnam aside and his emphasis on the names of white ethnics fighting the war, apparently ignoring their Latino and Black counterparts, laid bare the law’s original intent: as a symbolic nod to more recent white arrivals of European descent, often Catholic or Jewish from Europe’s eastern and southern regions . As Columbia University Professor Mae Ngai told Rodriguez and the audience, Slavic, Irish, and Italian Americans had become more assertive in their desire for recognition and acknowledgement and had viewed the previous quota system, established after WWI, “as an insult.”  The Democratic supermajority that came to Congress on the coattails of LBJ and the JFK assassination made the law more possible than it might have been previously.

The law’s provisions erased the quota system that had been in place since the early 1920s and replaced it with a structure that treated all nations equally, allotting each country 20,000 immigrants per year and giving passage to those with needed skills and occupations or family ties (siblings, parents, children). All participants noted, though, that this sort of equality proved somewhat perverse—as Ngai asked, “Why treat New Zealand the same as Mexico?” Ignoring any insult to Flight of the Concord fans, considering American dependence on Mexican labor throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, this sort of imposed “fairness” seems a “very abstract idea” and hardly equitable, she and others argued.

Moderator and Executive Director of Zocalo Public Square, Gregory Rodriguez
Moderator and Executive Director of Zocalo Public Square, Gregory Rodriguez

In retrospect, the law seems shot through with ironic consequences. Congressman Emanuel Celler all but promised constituents that the act had “no real chance of increasing of Asian or African immigration,” and Rodriguez noted that Johnson himself went out of his way to assure Americans of the same. Even Hawaii Senator Hiram Fong sought to ease any concerns regarding such possibilities, saying “Asians represent six-tenths of 1 percent of the population of the United States … the people from that part of the world will never reach 1 percent of the population.” Yet, as pointed out by University of Minnesota historian Erika Lee during Thursday’s discussion and in a recent article, “No group has benefited more from the ’65 Act than Asian immigrants. Taking advantage of new pathways into the United States through family reunification and professional skills, Asian immigration has increased exponentially.”

immigration 1951 to 1980 pie charts1

That said, while Latino and Asian immigration garners much of the media’s attention, African immigration, particularly since the 1980s and the institution of the visa lottery system in the 1990s, has also expanded significantly—tenfold, as a recent Economist article pointed out. As CUNY sociologist Richard Alba responded to one audience member who asked why this immigration flow seemed to receive less coverage or attention from the population, in NYC African immigrants are a vibrant part of the city’s foreign born population. Lee concurred, pointing out that the Twin Cities in Minnesota currently house the largest Somali population in the U.S. Moreover, though just 3% of the metro area population, Washington D.C’s African population ranks first proportionally in the nation. “Clearly many [African immigrants] qualify for citizenship under the skills criteria,” noted Alva, adding he and others on the panel expected the numbers to increase in the future.

Columbia University Professor Mae Ngai
Columbia University Professor Mae Ngai
  1. Economics Here and Abroad

Domestically, the U.S. economy has benefitted handsomely from the influx of new arrivals. Without question, the reason a mature post-industrial economy like the U.S. maintains a certain youthfulness when compared with counterparts like Germany or Japan has everything to do with immigration and the ’65 act. One could take this argument further. Though none of the panelists mentioned it, urban studies experts widely agree that immigration to cities bolsters metropolitan economies and helps bring a low-level of controlled gentrification to struggling communities. (In fact, CityLab recently reported that higher levels of immigration correspond with higher wages overall in American cities.) At last year’s Urban History Conference in Philadelphia, none other than Kenneth Jackson highlighted the importance of immigrants to the nation’s most thriving cities. “If you don’t attract immigrants you’re cutting your own throat,” he told an audience of historians. Mike Davis and others have written about burgeoning transnational suburbs such as Chula Vista, CA just south of San Diego, which have helped to reshape the town and region.

ASU's Matthew Garcia
ASU’s Matthew Garcia

For nations of origin however, the law’s impact remains more muted, even tragic. Granted, remittances to places like Mexico and the Philippines provide much need economic support. For example, global remittances to the Philippines surpassed 25 billion in 2013; though down in recent years, Mexico’s amounted to 22 billion in 2013. Unfortunately, this kind of diaspora also leads to a certain level of brain drain. Arizona State Professor Matt Garcia noted that Latin American migration to the U.S. deprives places like Mexico of its brightest minds and “in some ways perpetuates a type of US imperialism.” Mexico’s Border Industrialization Program of the 1960s, meant to absorb bracero labor when the guest worker arrangement lapsed in 1964, led to the troubled maquiladora industry we know today. Notably, sociologist Sasskia Sassen argued these kind of labor developments have contributed to the “feminization of poverty,” as maquiladoras have employed many more women than men with in some cases deleterious impact on working conditions, wages, and human rights. Though not to dismiss Sassen’s argument, female laborers have certainly been subject to labor abuses and violence as maquiladora workers, but the jobs themselves, others argue, often pay more than most other employment in Northern Mexico.

The Philippines provides a second troubling example of this trend. As Ngai pointed out, the reason one sees so many Filipino nurses in U.S. hospitals and wider health care has everything to do with American needs that dwarf its impact on the Philippines. During U.S. occupation of the archipelago, a system of training and development for nursing had been developed. When the Department of Labor declared a shortage of nurses, identifying it as a needed occupation, nursing became an export industry to the states. While U.S. patients might have benefited. the Philippines, a far less developed and more troubled economy, now struggles with its own nursing shortfall.

Second, in many cases immigrants that gain passage to the U.S. via H-1 visas and the like are rarely set on a path to citizenship. In fact, J-1 visas which enable foreign teachers to attain jobs in primary and secondary schools in the U.S. now outnumber Teach for America participants, as Garcia pointed out, and very few will be able to attain citizenship. This not only removes talented educators from their nations of origin but also perpetuates America’s own pedagogical difficulties, since it serves as a temporary fix for a long term problem. After all J-1 visas do not provide a path to citizenship. Too often, Alba argued, as observers we conflate these sorts of guest worker programs as a means to citizenship, which they are decidedly not. In fact, Ngai added, they open up workers to further abuse and exploitation since “if they complain about conditions they get sent back by their employer.”


  1. Creating “Illegal Aliens” and Sewing Division in Mexican American Communities

In an October 2 Los Angeles Times Op-ed, Professor Jane Hong highlighted the ’65 act’s divergent effect on Latino and Asian immigration. Admittedly, prior to ’65 Asians had endured harsh limitations on immigration and naturalization, but the law as already noted, pried open the metaphorical gates of migration. For Mexican and Latino immigrants, the result proved far less celebratory.

“For Latinos, by contrast, Hart-Celler made the U.S. less accessible. Before 1965, immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries was largely unrestricted,” writes Hong. “It was Hart-Celler that brought Latino immigration from the Western Hemisphere under numerical limit for the first time.” As Garcia commented, what had been a free flow of labor became a battle of pejoratives as Mexican laborers went from braceros “to wetbacks to illegal immigrants to undocumented workers.”   If you doubt his assertion, google “Operation Wetback”— you’ll be more than a little disturbed by your findings. Ending the bracero program did nothing to stem the flow of workers; 4.6 million had already labored in the U.S. during the law’s over two-decade tenure. With the needs of southwestern agriculture, it would not stop.

For labor organizers like Cesar Chavez, undocumented agricultural workers proved more an impediment to unionization efforts. “How do I organize people without citizenship?” Chavez asked himself. According to Garcia, his alliance with the AFL-CIO forced his hand and, unable to “transcend time and place,” Chavez decided to oppose undocumented workers, further marginalizing them in the process.

A similar development unfolded in Mexican American communities. As Garcia, David Gutierrez and others have documented, the bracero program had already created divisions among Mexican Americans. Some saw braceros as rivals for employment, wages, and even romantic interests, wrote Garcia in his 2001 work, A World of its Own. For many Mexican American organizations, undocumented workers complicated white Americans’ views of their communities, leading to sweeping negative generalizations about citizenship and national loyalties. Having become far more receptive to undocumented workers, opinions and policy positions in Mexican American communities have changed over the past several decades, but the experience proved “wrenching for Latino families,” which explains why they have been the most vocal proponents for immigration reform, noted Garcia.

Some have begun to claim citizenship from Honduras or El Salvador since the U.S. offers child migrants from those regions asylum status, thereby providing a structure for social service support and residence. Mexican laborers receive no such opportunities, Ngai pointed out.

  1. Creating Identity for Asian America

When Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow (BLT) premiered at the 2003 Sundance Festival, some audience members reacted harshly to the film’s amoral depiction of overachieving and to some extent conniving Asian American college-bound adolescents, arguing Lin had somehow betrayed “his people” by portraying them in such a negative light. The film’s stars, such as John Cho, and the late great Roger Ebert defended BLT’s storyline. “It’s threatening to some people because they want a particular image,” Cho pointed out. “And we’ve gone away from stereotypes in order to kind of negate these bad stereotypes. You see on TV, it’s all positive model minority cut-out [type characters] — it’s just a function in a scene. What this movie does is give you protagonists that are very deeply flawed. And I think in order for Asian-American cinema to progress, we need to have characters who are deeply flawed.”

University of Minnesota's Erika Lee
University of Minnesota’s Erika Lee

The reaction to BLT reflects the hard-earned place that “the model minority” image holds for many in the Asian American community, but also how many others refuse to be limited by its designation and the ways in which it cast aspersions toward other minority groups. The Hart-Celler Immigration Act and the Cold War did a great deal of work to create this category, a subject Lee addresses in her recent book, The Making of Asian America. From “despised minority” in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to valued “model minority” in the post-World War II period, the ’65 act opened up the possibility of migration and citizenship as Asians across the ocean had developed their educational credentials while their countries of origin had been unable to economically expand to accord the employment equal to their skills. In a review of the book in the New York Times, Oliver Wang thought of himself and his “California coterie of second-generation kids of Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Indian descent [as] … post-65ers.”

In recent years, scholars of Asian American history, Ngai among them with her seminal Impossible Subjects (2004), have done a great deal of work to demonstrate how Cold War pressures and the efforts of Asian Americans themselves redefined their place in America.

Few places offer a window into this topic like California. As Charlotte Brooks illustrated in Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, Asian American homeowners encountered a great deal of racism when settling in suburban California, but the desire by the U.S. government and its citizens to appeal to Asians with the equanimity of the American people enabled many to integrate Southern and Northern California suburbia, even if white homeowners did so grudgingly. Admittedly, this led to an uneven level of integration in California suburbia; Mexican Americans and blacks found it much more difficult to do the same.

Yet, the ’65 act gave Asian Americans the ability to chart their own future in America. In places like Gardena, California a suburb of Los Angeles, they did just that, carving out perhaps the nation’s first Japanese American suburb and revitalizing a town that one historian described as a “run down suburb” into a thriving community with transnational economic connections. San Gabriel Valley too has been radically transformed by the act becoming an entrepot of Latino and Asian American culture as described by Wendy Cheng in her recent work, The Changs Next Door to the Diazes.

Still, Model Minority tropes also ignore the plight of more recent arrivals, such as those from Southeast Asia who, far from the kind of middle class security described above, have struggled with much more hardscrabble conditions. While post ’65 Asian female migrants to U.S. include a great deal of professionals who address labor shortages, and small business owners “who fill abandoned labor markets in declining urban economies,” writes Rhacel Salazar Parrenas, this immigration flow also includes women who “provide low wage labor in service and decentralized manufacturing in employment in global cities.” Filipinas and women from Southeast Asia in particular are part of this latter population movement and, while critical to the U.S. economy, benefit much less than the Model Minority designation would suggest.

Eden Center, Falls Church, VA
Eden Center, Falls Church, VA
  1. One Caveat: “War! What Is It Good For?”

While all members of the panel downplayed the role that war and militarization have played in shaping American demographics, it might be worth noting, as did one audience member, the ’65 act came as the U.S. enhanced its role in the quagmire of the Vietnam War. Almost two decades prior to the ’65 Act, the War Brides Acts enabled the spouses of American servicemen first in Europe and then Asia to immigrate to the U.S. and attain citizenship. The Vietnam War heightened this process, though as the panel argued, U.S. policymakers had never anticipated this development. In fact, as Ngai pointed out, humanitarian aid to refugees never occurred to U.S. officials until April 1975 with the fall of Saigon, a process captured in the recent documentary, The Last Days of Vietnam. Lee agreed, though adding that between April 1975 and the end of the year, the U.S. evacuated 130,000 South Vietnamese to the U.S. and over the years over 1 million Southeast Asians have immigrated to the U.S. One need only look to Orange County, California or Northern Virginia to witness the results.

One might add that covert actions abroad have had a significant effect on demographics as well creating pathways, admittedly uneven and unequal ones, for Vietnamese, Salvdorian, and Iranian diasporas. Andrew Friedman documents this development and its effect on one of the nation’s most diverse metropolitan areas, Northern Virginia, in his work, Covert Capital.

Much like the ’65 act, the trajectories of each group, though similar in some ways, diverge greatly. Iranians arrived with arguably the most enviable status, often emigrating with high level government and business contacts that enabled them to more effortlessly blend in within Northern Virginia middle and upper-class environs. Vietnamese found themselves in tougher conditions but hacked out their own spaces in the face of open hostility and opposition, as evidenced by the famed Eden Plaza. Salvadorians, due to clandestine contra wars funded secretly by arms of the U.S. government, arrived as a nearly invisible population. Having been driven out by the violence of U.S. backed covert interventions that led to chaotic conditions and economies in El Salvador and lacking the influential ties to bureaucrats or officials enjoyed by their Vietnamese and Iranian counterparts, many endured categorizations such as “illegal immigrants.” One might add too, that recent wave of asylum seekers this past summer relates directly to U.S. skullduggery in 1980s Latin America, which destabilized several countries in the region with consequences that continue to reverberate.

Though panelists rightly noted that none of this had ever been intended or planned for, neither were the consequences of the ’65 Act. That said, a panel can only address so many topics in 45 minutes and the five panelists covered a tremendous amount of territory, so this caveat is should be placed into context.


Undoubtedly, the 1965 Immigration Act has been ignored for too long; its impact on the U.S. and abroad have been deeply important.   While it remains true, not all of its consequences can be described as beneficial, but Garcia and others rightly kept the conversation balanced, noting that if one takes a broader view many aspects of the law have proven deeply troubling for other nations and Mexican Americans.

For America, however, the ’65 act seems to be a gift of unintended consequences. Immigrants, by nature, are risk takers. To leave one’s country of birth for the unknown vistas of another an ocean away or hundreds of miles to the north takes tremendous courage, ambition, and fortitude. Adding millions of those folks to a nation’s population, particularly one with an economy that, for better or worse, depends on the naked individualism of human ambition perhaps more than any other, has proven massively important for the U.S.

Tragically, immigration itself is not a process defined by equality. Indeed, as Alba pointed out, the U.S. cannot take everyone. The system needs work and its ramifications for participants, whether they be migrant labor, the Mexican American community, or those from nations abroad, need to be acknowledged and understood. Undoubtedly, there remains a great deal of unfairness and abuse in the system, but as Professor Alba admitted “maybe there is an inherent unfairness about immigration itself.” Let’s all hope for less in the future.