President Johnson sits in the oval office surrounded by individuals while he signs the Immigration Act of 1965 into law

Geraldo L. Cadava

October 3, 2015, will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act. On the third day of that month fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson, sitting in front of the Statue of Liberty, signed the bill into law. More than any other piece of legislation in the nation’s history, the Act transformed the ethnic and racial makeup of the United States. We live in a country that looks a lot different today than it did fifty years ago, largely because of the law. How should we think about the nation that has emerged in its wake, and the American histories made possible by it, from the time of its signing to this year’s Golden Jubilee?

Earlier this year, Vicki Ruiz, a past president of the OAH and the current president of the American Historical Association, selected LBJ’s signing of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act as one of the “moments that changed America.” She wrote, “Today more than 40 million foreign-born individuals live in the United States, about three quarters of whom have legal status.” They and “their American-born children,” she continued, “comprise nearly 25% of the U.S. population.” The scale of the migration and the pace of demographic change have few if any analogues in earlier periods of American history, a fact that has had ripple effects on later conflicts over immigration, including hostilities against undocumented immigrants and the rise of border militarization and policing regimes. (1) Noting that the 1965 Act shaped the country we live in today isn’t novel, but it’s worth remembering as we continually struggle to define our national character, the boundaries and meanings of American citizenship, and what kind of country the United States is and will become.

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A decade ago, the Columbia University historian Mae Ngai published her now-classic book, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004), an authoritative history of the 1965 Act, the immigration laws that preceded it, the political world that made it possible, its most important provisions, and its unforeseen consequences. Many historians and observers have considered the 1965 Act to be a liberal law because it repealed the national-origins quotas codified by the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, legislation that raised the bar for Southern and Eastern Europeans in particular, who, at the time, were seen as socialists or anarchists. The exclusion of other groups, such as Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, and Indians—Asians, in other words—had been repealed before the sixties, but the 1965 Act would close the books, once and for all, on the long era of nation-based exclusion.

The liberal framers of the 1965 Act sought reform primarily to achieve formal equality for immigrants from all nations. Especially in the context of post–World War II pluralism, demands during the Cold War for racial equality, and burgeoning civil rights struggles, the 1965 Act symbolized America’s democratic traditions in practice. Liberals and conservatives generally agreed on the law’s preference for highly skilled immigrants, but they did not see eye to eye on questions of how many immigrants in total would be permitted and whether or not the law would place restrictions on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere. Liberals argued for a greater number of immigrants than conservatives wanted (500,000 or more compared with 250,000 or fewer) and, in keeping with earlier practice, pushed for no restrictions on Western Hemisphere countries. But LBJ and other Democrats argued that compromise was necessary. In the end they agreed to the modest figure of 290,000 total immigrants per year—or 170,000 from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere—and a numerical cap of 20,000 on immigrants from any single country.

Despite the rhetoric of equal treatment under the law, the 1965 Act bred inequality and was, at its core, restrictive and “conservative.” This was perhaps Ngai’s most important insight: the law led to inclusion, but it led to even greater exclusion. For the first time in history, the 1965 Act placed a numerical restriction on immigrants from Western Hemisphere countries such as Mexico. No prior immigration law restricted the immigration of Mexicans or other Latin Americans, in part because business owners relied on their labor. Instead, their immigration was regulated according to the demands of the U.S. labor market. So when the 1965 Act set the number of Mexicans who could immigrate legally at 20,000 per year despite the demands of employers for a much greater number, it guaranteed a spike in undocumented immigration, a subject that had garnered national attention before, especially during the anti-“wetback” hysteria of the mid-1950s, but never with the vitriol that characterized it from the late 1960s onward. (2)

At the same time, the Mexican economy could not absorb all of the workers who returned home at the conclusion of the guest-worker initiative known as the Bracero Program. Between 1942 and 1964, the Bracero Program facilitated the migration of some 4.5 million Mexicans to the United States. Other mechanisms made legal migration possible as well, such as crossing cards that enabled Mexicans living near the border to work in the United States, but not nearly on the scale of the Bracero Program. Originally designed as an emergency wartime measure that would replace enlisted Americans, the program endured well into the postwar era because U.S. employers needed low-wage labor. Their need, of course, lasted beyond 1964, too, but the U.S. and Mexican governments ended the program primarily due to pressure from labor and civil rights organizations, which argued that braceros competed with American workers and that the program exploited the Mexican laborers. Since little work was available to them back home in Mexico, when the program ended many former braceros again headed north to the United States, this time illegally. Such unforeseen consequences of the 1965 Act helped imprint our national conscience with the image of Mexican immigrants as the archetypal “illegal aliens.”

Another surprising outcome of the 1965 Act: its family reunification provisions in fact opened the gates to a far greater number of immigrants than the 20,000 stipulated by the law from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and other areas of the “third world.” The 1965 Act named several categories of immigrants who would receive preferential treatment, including the family members of naturalized citizens already living in the United States and immigrants working in certain high-skilled occupations. The parents, spouses, and unmarried children of naturalized immigrants could enter the United States and, as “non-quota” immigrants, they wouldn’t be counted as part of the 20,000 total. While its framers knew that the 1965 Act would create opportunities for new groups of immigrants to come to the United States, they greatly underestimated, wittingly or not, the impact of the law’s family reunification provision and expected the overall number of immigrants to remain static according to the established numerical caps.

Many immigrants who had come to the United States as quota immigrants ultimately brought family members to live with them. The authors of the law, Ngai tells us, “had not understood that each quota immigrant admitted into the country could open a path for non-quota family migration.” In addition to other causes of population growth and demographic transformation—including domestic births, undocumented immigration, or refuge from countries where the United States had intervened militarily, such as Vietnam, El Salvador, and Iraq—family reunification became an engine that drove the explosive population growth of Latin Americans and Asians during the late twentieth century. The non-quota preferences of the law demonstrated how it discriminated between particular categories of immigrants even though it promised equal treatment for all. (3)

In an interview about recent immigration to the United States, Ngai said that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 is the “biggest reason why we have a much more diverse and multicultural society since the late 20th century.” (4) Indeed, the 1965 Act has had transformative effects. The 1960 census—the final decennial census before the 1965 Act was signed— enumerated 1 million people of Asian descent in the United States, including Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Japanese. They constituted less than 1 percent of the population as a whole. Between 1970 and 2010, the Asian and Pacific Islander population of the United States increased from less than 1 percent to almost 6 percent of the population, in part because of the greater number of national groups who came to be counted as “Asian”—Vietnamese, Thailanders, Guamanians, Indians, and Malaysians, for example. Demographers have projected that Asians and Pacific Islanders could make up 8 percent of the population by 2030, and 10 percent by 2050.

Comparable percentages for Hispanics are even higher. According to the U.S. census, Hispanics represented only 3.6 percent of the population in 1960. Between 1970 and 2010, the Hispanic population—”people who trace their origins or descent to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish cultures”—increased from 4.8 to 16.3 percent of the total U.S. population. Demographers predict that Hispanics will account for 22.5 percent of the U.S. population by 2030, and 29 percent by 2050. Overall, since 1980, the number of Asians and Pacific Islanders has more than tripled and the number of Hispanics has more than doubled.

Meanwhile, in 2013 non-Hispanic whites hit an “all-time low” of 63 percent of the U.S. population, and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the United States will become a “majority-minority” country by 2043. The day for many cities and several states has already arrived. Twenty-five cities are now classified as majority-minority, including some of the biggest metropolises in the country (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix), as well as several regional centers (Buffalo, Tampa, Cincinnati, Memphis). The four majority-minority states are California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas, plus the District of Columbia. By 2020, says Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, Nevada, Maryland, Georgia, and perhaps Florida will become majority-minority states. By 2030, the list is likely to include Arizona and New Jersey, and perhaps Delaware and New York. (5)

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Since the passage of the 1965 Act many Americans have celebrated its transformation of the nation’s demographic landscape. Even as the law was still being debated, historians, Ngai wrote, saw the law as a “milestone in the telos of American liberal pluralism.” Newspaper accounts in the 1970s and 1980s described how the law led to the rapid growth of communities of Filipino doctors, Indian engineers, and other “third world professionals.” These new immigrants gave reason for hope despite national economic struggles. In 2009 the Harvard University sociologist Orlando Patterson claimed that, along with the “civil rights revolution,” the 1965 immigration law was one of the “two great converging forces” that led to Barack Obama’s historic election. And earlier this year, a Huffington Post article demonstrated how many Americans eagerly anticipate what our increasingly multicultural, majority-minority future will look like: we’ll enjoy “New Flavors, Better Food”; we’ll listen to “Amazing Music”; there will be “Less Racism”; we’ll watch “Better Television”; diversity will be “Good for Business”; there will be “More Ethnic Studies” classes; and “We’ll Be Better Thinkers.” (6) These sentiments reveal the optimistic vision of what America’s demographic transformation holds in store.

The more conservatively inclined have been less celebratory. They have lamented the 1965 Act ever since the law was signed, especially around the time of its decennial anniversaries, which have often coincided with renewed debates about immigration. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 also have haunted some conservatives who see the acts as the two other major missteps (besides the Immigration and Nationality Act) of LBJ’s Great Society and examples of government overreach. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act may have expanded the arena of citizenship, cultural belonging, and political engagement, but they didn’t transform the face of America itself, as the Immigration and Nationality Act did. Conservatives therefore reserved special criticism for the Act.

Violent conflicts over undocumented Mexican immigration erupted in the early 1970s, putting pressure on Congress to make immigration law more restrictive by amending the 1965 Act. By 1974, as Congress debated but never passed the Rodino Immigration Bills (H.R. 981 and H.R. 982), conservatives complained that the 1965 Act had already begun to reshape the United States. They argued that the country needed to “pull up the gang plank” in order to prevent the arrival of more immigrants. A decade later, in 1984, as Congress debated the Immigration Reform and Control Act (which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1986), the prominent journalist Theodore White described the 1965 Act as “probably the most thoughtless of the many acts of the Great Society.” (7)

Then in 1995, on the thirtieth anniversary of the law and in the immediate aftermath of the passage of California’s controversial Proposition 187, which would have barred undocumented immigrants from receiving a range of social services, the conservative Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) decried the 1965 Act as responsible for a period of “mass immigration” that had brought the third world to the United States. Ten years later, on the fortieth anniversary of the law, as Congress debated the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, the conservative historian Otis Graham wrote a report for Negative Population Group (NPG) in which he derided the “far-reaching and worrisome consequences” of the 1965 Act. Just this year, NPG—an organization that seeks to “slow, halt, and eventually reverse” the country’s population growth—dusted off Graham’s report and added a new introduction by David Simcox, the former chairman of the CIS board of directors and current senior adviser to NPG. Because the law had led to soaring Latin American immigration and other ills, he concluded, “the 50th ‘anniversary’ of the 1965 Immigration Act is not an occasion for celebration.” (8)

Change, and demographic change in particular, has been the fundamental lament of the 1965 Act’s opponents. But history is change over time, which is why historians are more acquiescent about the law’s effects. For us, the point isn’t to lament or to celebrate, but rather to explain. Something we’ve been able to demonstrate about conservative expressions of grief over the changing demographics of the United States is that the past they hearken back to is an imaginary one.

Native Americans inhabited the continent for thousands of years before European colonization. Chinese set foot on the American continent before Europeans. The first European settlement in what later became the United States was at St. Augustine, not Jamestown. The first European language spoken was Spanish, not English. Acknowledging these histories as part of America’s past doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of the British colonists or the founding fathers. These histories only make our past richer. Native American, Latin American, Asian, African, and other influences waxed and waned; they’ve risen and fallen and risen again over the centuries. But, as demonstrated by the explosion of scholarship on transnationalism, migration, borderlands, and hybridity, we’re interested in them now more than ever because they offer insight into who we’ve become, and who we’ve always been.

In this sense, perhaps we can say that the 1965 Act may have hastened the pace of demographic change, led to demographic change on a greater scale than had been seen before, and introduced new communities that now have their own historians. But more than as a moment of rupture, a break from the past, we might also see it as a law that made possible the continuation of a kind of pluralism that has defined America from the beginning.

Geraldo L. Cadava is an associate professor of history and Latina/o studies at Northwestern University. His first book, Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland (2013), won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award. He is currently writing a history of Latino conservatism from the early nineteenth century to the present.


1. Vicki Ruiz, “25 Moments That Changed America,” Time, June 4, 2015. Several commemorations on college campuses including Columbia University, the University of California at Irvine, and the University of Minnesota have explored, or will explore, the connection between the 1965 Act and today’s immigration debates.

2. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004), 258.

3. Ibid., 259, 262.

4. Mae Ngai quoted in Hansi Lo Wang, “For New Immigrants to the U.S., Ellis Island Still Means a Lot,” NPR Morning Edition, May 20, 2015.

5. Frank Bass, “White Share of U.S. Population Drops to Historic Low,” Bloomberg Business, June 12, 2013; Ruy Teixeira, “When Will Your State Become Majority-Minority,” ThinkProgress, May 8, 2013.

6. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 263; Deckle McLean, “New Immigrants: Third World Professionals,” Boston Globe, May 5, 1974, p. 30; James P. Sterba,”Immigrant Saga,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 27, 1987, p. 1; Orlando Patterson, “Race and Diversity in the Age of Obama,” New York Times, Aug. 14, 2009, p. A23; Roque Planas and Carolina Moreno, “10 Reasons You’ll Love Living in a Majority-Minority America,” Huffington Post, May 7, 2015.

7. McLean, “New Immigrants: Third World Professionals”; Theodore White, America in Search of Itself (1984), 363.

8. Center for Immigration Studies, “Three Decades of Mass Immigration: The Legacy of the 1965 Immigration Act,” Sept. 1995; Otis L. Graham Jr., “A Vast Social Experiment: The Immigration Act of 1965,” NPG Forum (Oct. 2005), 7; David Simcox and Otis L. Graham Jr., “Remembering the Immigration Act of 1965: The 50th Anniversary of a Population Game-Changer,” NPG Forum (March 2015), 4.