Congressional Conflicts: 50 Years since Hart Celler, the Long Arc of Legislative Immigration Politics


In a recent New York Times editorial, Nicolas Kristof returned to an old saw, one he visited in 2006: the Asian American Model Minority paradigm/stereotype/myth (the latter part all depends on your individual inclination). Needless to say, a white guy wading into such waters elicited some reactions, both in 2006 and over the weekend. Anyone following prominent Asian American academics – Ellen Wu, Erika Lee, Arissa Oh, among others on Twitter could gauge that reactions were less than favorable:

Lee even appeared on NPR to discuss the matter of immigration and “Model Minority” tropes over the weekend. During the roughly three and half minute discussion, the University of Minnesota professor pointed out that despite the fact immigration from Asia has been outpacing Latino immigration for years, the latter is actually at net zero. This means the same number of Hispanics leave the U.S. as come in annually, yet politicians still talk about “building walls” and expanding border security. However, many of the new Asian immigrants arrive via visas, eventually staying past the expiration date and settling into U.S. environs. If one has concerns about this development, walls would do little to solve it.   While Twitter undoubtedly remains a limited means of communication, and one often misconstrued, Lee also made an important point that aligned with several observations made in her interview.

When she and other immigration experts see headlines like Asian immigration “surges” set to “overtake” Latino migration, they worry. It would seem the “model minority” trope operates to salve white fears, portraying Asian Americans as an indistinguishable horde of success rather than the complex umbrella term that it is. Many Asian Americans remain mired in the working class or even poverty. The very imperfect Clint Eastwood film Gran Torino, for all its faults, got at this issue by demonstrating how some groups such as the Hmong struggle to find a secure and safe foothold in U.S communities. Yet, monikers like the “Model Minority” make whites feel safer about this growing influx of newcomers while at the same time, as the above tweets demonstrate, demeaning other groups by pointing out the alleged pathology of African Americans and the Trumpian image of a resource-draining Latino population.

In fact, all this talk of immigration and American attitudes toward said new arrivals coincides with the very legislation that led to the nation’s changing demographics and the debates that followed: the 1965 Hart Celler Immigration Act.

Last week, Lee and four other immigration experts – Matt Garcia, Richard Alba, Mae Ngai and moderator Gregory Rodriguez – debated the triumphs, tragedies, and general consequences of the influential law at the Smithsonian/Zocalo Public Square-sponsored event “What it means to be American”.   The panel’s participants engaged in a wide ranging and detailed discussion of the law.


Unsurprisingly, others have thoughts on the ’65 Act’s passage as well—such as domestic policy expert, adjunct at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Policy and Library of Congress Kluge Center Fellow Ruth Wasem, who presented a summary of her work on the legislation in her October 8, talk “The Struggle for Fairness: National Origin Quotas and the Immigration Act of 1965.” Sociologists and immigration specialists Susan Martin (Georgetown University) and Marta Tienda (Princeton University) joined Wasem for a post-talk discussion of the ’65 Act that not only differed from the Smithsonian panel a week early, but also disputed one of its main assertions.

Three Big Concepts

Unlike the Smithsonian panel, Wasem’s talk and the discussion that followed revolved around the Kluge Fellow’s findings based on her two and half decades of experience with domestic policy and months of time exploring the papers of legislators such as Rep. Emanuel Celler, the architect of the ’65 Act whose papers the Library of Congress houses in its Manuscript Division. As a domestic policy expert, Wasem focused more tightly on electoral politics, including a lengthy examination of the Hart-Celler Act’s predecessor, the 1952 McCarran Walter Immigration Act. Organizing the presentation around three concepts—the role of race and ethnicity, the “ideology of the deserving” in the selection process, and “proportionate or power politics”—Wasem delivered several surprising conclusions.

First, in regard to the role of race and ethnicity, Wasem pointed out that ideas about the two have been fluid for much of the 20th century. When the immigration laws of the 1920s were passed, the U.S. remained far more “tribal” in its racial and ethnic affiliations; at the time, the government had some 39 different categorizations. Even if they were not the targets of immigration restrictions like their Chinese counterparts, Irish and German immigrants struggled with ethnic stereotypes thrust upon them by the dominant WASP culture. Moreover, class also intervened to shape immigration policy. The 1882 Chinese Immigration Act severely reduced population flows from China, but it did allow for merchants to immigrate, thereby demonstrating that an “overlay of class [had been] present in earliest days of exclusion laws,” noted Wasem.

The second category overlaps with the above discussion. Much as debates of the Progressive Era forward tried to establish the idea of a “deserving poor”—or, in other words, those indigent persons and families who somehow might be worthy of state or charitable beneficence—so too did immigration policy attempt to identify and provide entry for those the state assumed to be worthy of inclusion. Even before the 1920s immigration restrictions, U.S. officials subjected newcomers to what amounted to a morality test. Martin also pointed out that from the Page Act of 1872 to the quotas of the 1920s, immigration policy denied not only criminals or those infected by disease but also those of guilty of “crimes of moral turpitude”—the application of which could hardly be described as equitable. For example, a woman suspected of adultery would have a much harder time gaining entrance to the U.S. than a man guilty of the same. Undoubtedly, race and ethnicity (or, rather, attitudes regarding each) also shaped Americans’ ideas about immigration well before the 1920s.

To be fair, however, as Wasem, Martin, and Tienda noted, countries have the right and responsibility to manage immigration policies such that they benefit the nation as a whole. “It’s not that everyone who is opposed to immigration is xenophobic,” Martin suggested, but the emotional nature of the issue and the persistent “fear of the other” makes rational discussion difficult. Policies should align with the values and equity that U.S. purports to promote, they all agreed, but as Richard Alba noted the previous week, “There is an inherent unfairness about immigration itself.” One hopes a nation’s policies do not compound this inequity. Clearly, when one examines immigration legislation from the first half of the 20th century, it might have hewed to ideals related to the “ideology of the deserving” but who decided who was “deserving”? Such decisions remained subject to class, racial, and ethnic biases.


The third area Wasem identified related directly to electoral politics. Many legislators worried as much about immigration’s effect on their next election, particularly through reapportionment as much as cultural decline. In this context, the Exclusion Acts (the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act) pertained to managing one’s political power not just exerting cultural control. When the ’65 legislation was being debated, numerous southern political leaders, noted Wasem, turned to the kind of race-baiting, overheated rhetoric we hear today. For example, though a western rather than a southern politician Senator Patrick McCarran (D-Nevada), co-author of the 1952 McCarran Walter Immigration Act made inflammatory statements regarding potential newcomers. While the 1952 act officially eliminated the naked exclusion of Asians, it was largely symbolic and policy continued to discriminate against their migration to the U.S. In addition, it reinforced the quotas set forth under the 1920s legislation. McCarran described potential new immigrants as a fifth column consisting “militant communists, Sicilian bandits, [and] criminals.”

In Wasem’s evaluation, however, politicians adopted such rhetoric in order to rally their political bases. Moreover, though ethnicity and race remained central to these debates, the urban-rural divide played a significant role. The 1920s marked the first time that an equal percentage of Americans lived in urban areas as did in rural ones. Increased immigration flows promised to alter this situation further in favor of cities and their political representation.

While many politicians raised fearful images of ethnic hordes invading America to oppose passage of the ’65 Act, as illustrated by Mae Ngai a week earlier, there were electoral reasons for urban politicians like New York’s Rep. Emanuel Celler or Senator Herbert Lehman to promote a change in the law for their own political purposes. Celler, a longtime Congressman from Brooklyn, recognized that the democratic supermajority swept in on the dual coattails of the JFK assassination and the LBJ campaign consisted of large swaths of white ethnics who viewed the previous immigration laws as an insult to their ethnic history and conceptions of citizenship. Lehman described the rhetoric of Senator Patrick McCarran and others as xenophobic and racist while Celler invoked a more metaphysical state of membership, placing the emphasis on the kind of ideals one harbored internally: “It is not important [that] you were born in America … it is important America is born in you.” President Truman, who had opposed the 1952 act, provided further perspective on issue: “No other realm in national life are we so stultified by the dead hand of past as we are … in immigration,” Wasem quoted FDR’s successor. “We welcome progress and change in every sphere of life except immigration.”

While the 1952 act remained a flawed, limited attempt at immigration reform, it did introduce the idea of basing immigration on skills, a provision that would receive greater attention in the ’65 Act. Nonetheless, despite this attention to the U.S. labor market, family reunification would ultimately be a larger force in bringing greater numbers of Asian, African, and Latino newcomers to American shores.

One of the strengths of Wasem’s talk lay in its attention to the historical arc of immigration law. The ’65 act came to be after decades of debate, including discussions around the 1952 law which slowly reshaped immigration legislation. Likewise, however retrograde one views the laws of the 1920s, they developed over a fifty year period from the establishment of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. During these long periods of gestation, debates about immigration ensued with little to show for it. For all the talk today of the federal government’s abdication on this issue or its failure to take action, the reality remains that throughout the 20th century a similar dynamic unfolded.

That said, as Tienda noted in her comments, Congress often failed to pass major legislation, but smaller “registry provisions” (which she noted might be labeled pejoratively as “amnesty” today) were frequently invoked. These provisions enable individuals who have been living in the U.S. for an extended period of time and provided they meet a basic set of criteria, to apply for a green card granting permanent residence and eventually, citizenship. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed under the presidency of the now-mythic Ronald Reagan, serves as only one recent example this policy. Even Senator McCarran approved of registry provisions on occasion; the difference today is that immigration has become much more politicized in recent years, Wasem pointed out. “We’re doing amnesty all the time [but] we’re just not drum rolling it,” Tienda told the audience. Martin concurred, telling the packed room earlier that since she had begun studying immigration policy in 1979, the politics around it had become increasingly more partisan.

11/6/1986 President Reagan in the Roosevelt Room signing S. 1200 Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 with Dan Lungren Strom Thurmond George Bush Romano Mazzoli and Alan Simpson looking on
11/6/1986 President Reagan in the Roosevelt Room signing S. 1200 Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 with Dan Lungren Strom Thurmond George Bush Romano Mazzoli and Alan Simpson looking on

In her comments after Wasem’s talk, Martin also noted the tendency of Americans to look at immigration through “rose colored glasses” forgetting the discrimination faced by our Irish, German, and Italian forbearers along with our own ambivalence today. Wasem addressed this in her presentation. Prior to the passage of immigration reform in May of 1965, Americans remained deeply divided on the issue, with roughly 1/3 favoring a continuance of the quota system, 1/3 favoring a skills-based immigration policy, and another 1/3 remaining undecided. A Gallup poll in June of that same year suggested that a large percentage of the undecided shifted toward support of the new legislation. Why? As Wasem explained during the Q&A discussion, the fact that the civil rights movement that was at its peak in 1965 played an important role. The deeply discriminatory rhetoric of some politicians who opposed the law drove some people from a more moderate position on immigration toward support for the more liberal ’65 Act. Many of these people, Wasem argued, refused to be associated with racists and modified their views on the act so as not to be associated with what they viewed as discrimination. By that December, the public expressed broad support of the recently passed law.

Still, if racist language against the ’65 Act drove some to support it, it also helped to shape aspects of the legislation. Organizations like Daughters of the American Revolution expressed horror that “hordes” of Africans would soon arrive and politicians like Pat Robertson’s father, Senator Willis Robertson (R-VA), expressed similar fears. The newly independent nations of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, caused a great deal of consternation for folks like Robertson. Due to this fear of a rising African and Caribbean black population infiltrating the U.S., lawmakers inserted limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. Therefore, according to Wasem, the idea of West Indian blacks coming to America (not fears of increased Mexican migration) drove restrictions of immigration in the Western Hemisphere, which had previously not been subject to quotas.

All in the Family

Much as the Smithsonian panel before them, Wasem, Tienda, and Martin agreed that the ’65 Act’s results did not align with expectations. The numbers of Central Americans, Asians, West Indians, and Africans who arrived were largely unexpected. However, unlike Ngai et al, the Library of Congress discussion broke this down a bit differently.

First, one of the reasons so few Europeans decided to decamp for the U.S. from Europe related to political and economic conditions in their home countries. Eastern Europeans remained locked behind the Iron Curtain, while the effects of the Marshall Plan had begun to right the economies of Western Europe. Even southern Europeans saw less opportunity in the U.S. as compared to their domestic situations. For example, Italy experienced what is sometimes called the “Italian economic miracle”: a booming economy due largely to industrialization beginning in the late 1950s and extending into the 1960s. As a result, fewer Italians sought refuge in the U.S. In other words, had Congressional leaders taken a good look around at the international picture, they would have known expectations for increased European immigration to the US in this period represented wishful thinking. Indeed as Tienda added, Congress tends to view immigration policy “through a rear view mirror” which makes anticipating new developments difficult if not impossible. Judging from Professor Lee’s comments to NPR this past weekend, the general public might be equally guilty.

Second, Congress and other observers too often view immigration as a linear process rather then acknowledging its fluctuations and divergences. The family reunification provisions account for the largest growth in immigration after 1965. Those already present in the U.S. prior to ’65 used the provision to bring over parents and other family members. New arrivals from Asia, the West Indies, Latin America, and Africa who qualified as skilled workers or those addressing designated shortages in the U.S. economy later brought their family members to the U.S.

Quotas might have been capped universally at 20,000, but the non-capped family reunification aspect of the bill explains the boom in the Asian and Latin American populations, especially in the case of the former. Nearly two-thirds of admissions are family based, noted Tienda. Asians used the family reunification provision the most; Asian immigrants brought their parents to the U.S. more than any other group by far, a fact that helped skew the percentage of those aged 50 and over. In 1980, these older immigrants accounted for 11% of the total, whereas today the number has crept up to 17%. The optics of preventing such flows seems unlikely to change, since, as Tienda pointed out, “Who opposes grandparents?”


Truman was not a fan of the 1952 Act but couldn't stop it.
Truman was not a fan of the 1952 Act but couldn’t stop it.

A Point of Difference

As with any debate, there will be differences. Panelists at the “What it means to be American” panel lamented that the ’65 Act essentially created the category of “illegal immigrant” by imposing hemispheric restrictions on migration. Despite the U.S.’s dependence on Mexican labor, that nation received only the usual 20,000 allotments for new arrivals. Matt Garcia went to great lengths to point out the difficulties this has created for Mexican American families and Mexican migrant labor, historically driving a wedge between these groups. The Bracero Program, for a number of reasons, only exacerbated this situation.

In contrast, Wasem presented a different take on this issue. She emphasized that the new focus on illegal immigrants arose from the ending of the Bracero program and that under the ’65 Act what had actually taken place was a shift in how Mexicans came to the US. California’s Edward Roybal and Texas’s Henry Gonzalez, both Democratic Congressman at the time, pushed for an end to the Bracero Program and the abuses that had amassed during its tenure, ranging from employer violations of labor rights to the increased flow of undocumented workers alongside braceros. For Wasem, the ’65 Act shifted Mexican migration from employment to family. Many Mexicans and other Latin Americans continued to come to the U.S. but now under the family reunification provision.

Undoubtedly, Wasem presents a compelling case and no one questions her work on this; as both Martin and Tienda pointed out, very few if any academics have really broken down the impact of the ’65 Act the way that Wasem has. Yet, one can wonder if their explanation of the Bracero Program takes into account the whole history of Mexican labor migration to the United States.

Braceros in the fields
Braceros in the fields

During the 1920s, despite a rise in Nativism, newly enacted border controls, and immigration quotas, Mexican migration to the Southwest and Southern California boomed. With fewer European and Asian workers, employers turned to Mexican labor. Since no quotas existed for the Western Hemisphere, “[a]fter 1925, legal out migration from Mexico once again doubled, reaching 4.1 per 1000 in 1928 and the rate of contract labor migration remained steady at just above 1.0 per 1000,” writes Douglass Massey, Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone in Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. As David Gutierrez writes in Walls and Mirrors, SoCal growers and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce clamored for more Mexican migration, even testifying to Congress for its necessity. “”They [Mexicans] are less a menace than our own negro, Filipinos, Japanese, or the Porto [sic] Rican negro,” LACC head George P. Clements told anyone who would listen. While the repatriation effort of the 1930s forced hundreds of thousands back to Mexico, the events of World War II and the Korean War and the institution of the Bracero Program brought millions more Mexicans into the U.S. workforce. In its 20 year existence perhaps as many as 4.6 million Mexican workers migrated north to labor in U.S. groves and fields as braceros.

The larger point is that this labor flow persisted from the 1920s forward, and while the Bracero Program might have been organized under government auspices for the sake of commercial interests, you can’t explain illegal immigration solely as a by-product of the program’s conclusion; it ignores the longer history. Granted, plenty of resistance to Mexican labor existed in the 1920s, but a significant amount of support remained and no called them “illegal” because there were no quotas to be violated. Admittedly, some said horribly racist things about Mexican workers, but the term illegal was not bandied about as it is today. Ironically enough, many employers preferred Mexican labor to their Asian counterparts because they were seen as less racially distinct or more likely to remain isolated in their own communities; racist fears of miscegenation remained acute. In the end, no matter how maligned in previous eras, the ’65 Act would bring millions of Latinos and Asians to the U.S., but each would deal with different categorizations.

As Lee told NPR, despite recent shifts in demographics, when the public thinks of immigration they continue to imagine undocumented Mexican migrants crossing southern borders. Model Minority stereotypes, “hordes” of Africans, or invasions of “illegal Mexican immigrants” represent just three prominent rhetorical devices harnessed by politicians and others to discuss immigration. Unsurprisingly, the ’65 Act might have contributed to these ideas, but clearly the actual results of the legislation remain far more complex and nuanced. If we believe in fairness and equity, justifying 11 million undocumented workers living in the shadows while citizens enjoy the fruits of their labor hardly seems equitable. The country at some point needs to “realize it can’t have its cake and eat it to,” Martin told the crowd. You can’t love your own “undocumented gardener or domestic servant” but then shun the larger group, she asserted. Debates about immigration and the ’65 Act all eventually come around to the same question. “What is fair? What is the fairest way to do this?” the three scholars asked. “I think it’s a pretty tough question,’ Tienda concluded.