By R. MARK FREY
In his book, A Nation of Immigrants, then U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy observed that “immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible.”
Given his Irish heritage, he knew well the sting of prejudice and anti-immigrant sentiment heaped upon Irish immigrants in the United States over the years. This no doubt played a role in his desire to see changes in the current immigration system.
But, it was more than that. Kennedy argued strongly and persuasively for an immigration system reflecting the values of the founders and affirming our nation’s commitment to equality as we move forward in this, the great American experiment. By the time he became president, Kennedy called for repeal of the national origins quota system which favored Europeans, with “no basis in logic or reason”, and recommended legislation in a July 23, 1963 address to Congress that rejected immigrants’ national origins while taking into account their skills and talents; their family relationships with persons already here; and giving parents of U.S. citizens non-quota status.
Unfortunately, he failed to see this come to fruition as he was assassinated just a few months later on Nov. 22, 1963.
Notwithstanding this tragic event, his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, signed into law the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 on Oct. 3, 1965. Thanking JFK for his vision, President Johnson proceeded to proclaim that the dreaded national origins quota system was abolished and replaced by a more equitable system taking into account one’s skills and close ties to family members already here.
Johnson declared that “we can now believe that it [the national origins quota system] will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege. Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide. The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources — because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.”
Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 by President Johnson at the foot of the Statue of Liberty with such luminaries in attendance as Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Speaker of the House of Representatives John W. McCormack of Massachusetts, U.S Representative to the United Nations Arthur J. Goldberg, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, U.S. Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, Sen. Jacob K. Javits of New York, among others, as well as then-White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers.
Although President Johnson downplayed the significance of this historic piece of legislation, he acknowledged that “it is still one of the most important acts of this Congress and of this administration. For it does repair a very deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice. It corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American Nation. [This legislation] will really make us truer to ourselves both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways.”
And, what results can we see from that legislation some 50 years later? What changes have come about? According to a report recently released by the Pew Research Center, there have been some remarkable changes. Consider the following:
- Our foreign-born population was 9.6 million in 1965 and 45 million in 2015 with current projections for 78 million immigrants in 2065.
- Between 1965 and 2015, roughly 55 percent of our nation’s population growth can be attributed to immigrants, their children, and grandchildren.
- Our foreign-born population accounted for 5 percent of the country’s population in 1965 and 14 percent in 2015 with a projected increase to 18 percent in 2065.
- Since 1965, 51 percent of all immigrants to the United States came from Latin America with 25 percent from Asia. By 2065, analysts project a decline in the proportion of Latin American immigrants to 31 percent and an increase in Asian immigrants to 38 percent.
- The composition of our U.S. population has changed as well. In 1965, 84 percent of our population was comprised of non-Hispanic whites. That declined in 2015 to 62 percent while the Hispanic portion rose from 4 percent in 1965 to 18 percent in 2015. The story is the same for Asians with less than 1 percent in 1965 and an increase to 6 percent in 2015. Without the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, Pew Research analysts note that our nation’s composition would be much different: 75 percent white, 14 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic, and less than 1 percent Asian.
- And, what for the future? Non-Hispanic whites will, by 2065, comprise just 46 percent of our U.S. population while Hispanics and Asians will make up 24 percent percent and 14 percent, respectively. That means no majority population and the day when this country is truly a pluralistic nation.
It’s remarkable that a piece of legislation downplayed in importance at its inception has made such a significant impact on this country, its population, and even the very conception of “America”. That change came about through a vision and commitment to implement a new immigration system addressing problems facing the country at that point in time.
As President Kennedy observed in his July 23, 1963 address to Congress, “It [the national origins quota system] neither satisfies a national need nor accomplishes an international purpose. In an age of interdependence among nations, such a system is an anachronism for it discriminates among applicants for admission into the United States on the basis of the accident of birth.”
Here we are, some fifty years after passage of this historic legislation, facing a new set of issues revolving around the presence of 11 million out-of-status immigrants in the country (and how that came to be), huge backlogs with both family and employer-based visas, refugees and refugee processing, enforcement, and security; all the while seeking solutions through our current, inadequate, and rickety immigration system, one showing signs of its age with creaks and cracks, sagging under the weight of this current set of problems.
As we rightfully celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Immigration Act of 1965, let’s also remember the vision and commitment required of those individuals seeking changes back then. The lesson to be learned today from the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 is that we need more of that determination, and less obstructionism, to tackle the problems associated with immigration currently facing our nation at this point in the 21st century. And, to paraphrase JFK, a determination based on logic and reason.*
*Further information about the signing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 may be found at the LBJ library website: http://www.lbjlibrary.org/mediakits/immigration. Additional information about the Pew Research Center’s report on the impact of immigration on the United States since passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 may be found at: http://www.pewhispanic.org/2015/09/28/modern-immigration-wave-brings-59-million-to-u-s-driving-population-growth-and-change-through-2065.
Mark Frey is a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has practiced immigration law exclusively for more than 25 years with an emphasis on political asylum, family and marriage-based immigration, naturalization, removal defense, appeals, H-1B visas, and religious workers.