Sarah R. Coleman

While much of the day to day news coverage of immigration policy focuses on the Southwest border, this fan flaming about the southern border is a distraction from where a large part of the current anti-immigrant effort lies—in businesses, schools, homes, and communities inside our borders and reflects several developments in recent immigration history.

1965 is a critical year in immigration history, and the history of the United States more broadly, because of the passage of the Hart-Celler Act. A key piece of legislation in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, Hart-Celler abolished the national origins quotas of the 1920s that had largely staunched immigration from all but Western Europe, instead prioritizing the reunification of families and the admission of skilled labor.

Approved by Congress in the same year as the Voting Rights Act (just a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964), under an ethos of civil rights and fairness, the act set a uniform cap on all nations and introduced for the first time a cap on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. Thus, while the overall cap rose, the volume of legal immigration from Mexico fell, leading to a sharp increase in deportations.[1]

The result was mass immigration from Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia while European migration fell. Of the approximately fifty-nine million immigrants that arrived in the United States between 1965 and 2015, approximately half came from Latin America and one-quarter from Asia.[2] Whereas in 1965, 84 percent of Americans were classified as non-Hispanic Whites, by 2015 that share had declined to 62 percent. The Hispanic share of the population grew from 4 percent in 1965 to 18 percent in 2015. Asians also saw their share rise, from less than 1 percent in 1965 to 6 percent in 2015. New immigrants, their children, and grandchildren have driven much of the population growth in the United States since 1965, adding 72 million people to the nation’s population, accounting for 55 percent of the population growth.[3]

Beyond reshaping admissions policy, the Hart-Celler Act reshaped American society and culture, and launched deep debates over the place of the immigrant in American life. As controlling the southern border proved too difficult for anti-immigration policymakers, the battle for authority over immigrants shifted from external borders to internal ones. A new brand of anti-immigration politics was born.

The rights of documented and undocumented persons have eroded greatly since the 1960s, with restrictions imposed on access to education, labor rights, and safety net programs. The ability of federal authorities to enforce protections for immigrants has declined. Immigrants in the United States today have dramatically worse access to rights and the social safety net than they did just fifty years ago.

In the 1970s, anti-immigrant activists began to pass state laws and bring litigation to limit access to public services and benefits on the basis of immigration status, pushing for deeper distinctions between citizens and noncitizens. Initially, these efforts were met with mixed results.

In 1971 the Supreme Court upheld immigrants’ access to benefits in Graham v. Richardson, which ruled that states could not impose welfare benefit restrictions on noncitizens that didn’t apply to citizens. Such restrictions violated the Equal Protection provision of the Fourteenth Amendment and infringed on the federal government’s exclusive control of immigration. But as Cybelle Fox has shown, officials in the Nixon administration used their power to prohibit states from providing federal welfare support and Medicaid to unauthorized immigrants. Over time, this move paved the way for barring unauthorized immigrants from most federally funded programs.[4]

Famously in Plyler v Doe, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees all children, regardless of immigration status, equal access to a primary and secondary public education. As the majority opinion noted, “It is difficult to understand precisely what the State [Texas] hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries.”[5]

A constellation of institutions and activists together thwarted much of the restrictionists’ efforts through the 1970s and 1980s, providing a perhaps surprising example of liberal persistence during a period generally understood as an era of conservative ascendency. First, the modern civil rights movement had fostered expansive notions of the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave immigrant rights advocates access to resources and networks that expanded their claims on the state. Second, in a nation increasingly committed to deregulation and the free movement of capital, goods, and labor across nation-state boundaries, anti-immigration hard-liners struggled to gain power and shape policy within both parties. Third, restrictionists also struggled to navigate the complexity of the United States’ fractured legislative process and regulatory structures at the federal, state, and local levels.

Although the anti-immigrant movement had begun with criticism of state support for unauthorized immigrants, by the 1990s, the debate had shifted into a much larger conversation about the nature of rights for all immigrants, including authorized immigrants and green card holders. The politics of immigration changed significantly in the 1990s—a pivotal decade. Citizenship status became the litmus test for basic rights.

California voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot initiative, Proposition 187, which sought to prohibit unauthorized immigrants from accessing public benefits including health care, education, and other social services. While federal courts invalidated many of the Proposition’s provisions, the measure’s popularity drove national policy. Conservatives used Proposition 187 as a model for proposals in the “Contract with America.” More broadly they harnessed the ballot initiative’s electoral popularity to push the Republican party toward a restrictionist immigration policy. Propostion 187’s influence was felt in the Clinton White House as well. A draft of Clinton’s welfare proposal increased the period during which some immigrants were ineligible for benefits. The savings from these restrictions funded approximately 40 percent of the Clinton welfare reform draft. By the end of 1996, anti-immigrant activists successfully limited the access of both authorized and unauthorized immigrants to key welfare programs, including federal welfare benefits, Medicaid, and food stamps. The government also issued new guidelines for the public charge rule, outlining how the use of certain government support could be used for denial of admission and adjustment of status.

While border state California led the way in blocking immigrants’ access to the welfare state, it was in the nation’s landlocked core that immigrants’ civil liberties began to be challenged in dynamic ways during the 1990s. In Iowa, a murder in a small town and the broader region’s changing immigration patterns spurred the creation of the 287(g) program by Congress as part of the 1996 Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The 287(g) program that allowed the federal government to deputize state and local law enforcement to assist in federal immigration enforcement, effectively ending a century of exclusive legal federal control over immigration enforcement. Previously unheard-of civil liberties concerns emerged.

After the electoral success of President Trump, there has been increasing focus on the mainstreaming of the anti-immigrant movement over the last ten years, but the movements’ trajectory stretches far beyond those years. In the wake of the civil rights movement, racism and nativism became less tolerated in public discourse. At the same time, the U.S. had embraced and expanded a welfare state with a variety of new benefits. The anti-immigrant activists of the 1970s, then, avoided the overtly racist arguments of their forebears and instead charged that immigrants unduly burdened the United States and its citizens. The argument is all-too familiar to us today: Immigrants take government benefits and jobs away from working- and middle-class Americans in an era when the new service-oriented, low-wage economy has left many of these citizens economically insecure. Today’s restrictionist agenda, then, does not sound only like early-twentieth-century xenophobia. It echoes the 1970s’ argument that more rights for immigrants mean fewer rights for native-born citizens. It builds upon the 1990s’ effort to limit rights in an insidious effort to create a second—and disadvantaged—class of Americans.

Not only is the language of the anti-immigrant movement reflective of the shifting politics of the 1970s, the movement’s sources of financial and institutional support have deep roots in the period. In 1979, Michigan ophthalmologist John Tanton and Garrett Hardin, a neo-Malthusian ecologist, founded the influential group the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR.) Its research branch was soon spun off as the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in 1986. Cordelia Scaife May, heiress to the Mellon banking and industrial fortune, began her involvement in the anti-immigrant movement in the 1970s and would eventually bankroll FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA, along with many smaller groups. Today, her foundation continues to fuel the movement, donating over $180 million between 2005 and 2017 to anti-immigrant groups.[6]

This longer history of anti-immigrant activism since 1965 also reveals how the rise of restrictionist energy often yielded less than many hoped, or feared. Anti-immigrant activists have been unsatisfied and become ever more radical, as the policies that have diminished the rights of immigrants have not diminished the growing size of the foreign-born population.

Looking at the history of immigration politics since 1965 also helps to explain some of the greatest challenges facing policy makers today. While a recent poll found that almost 70 percent of Americans support offering a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, legislative efforts to provide it have failed time and again, even in the last year with a Democratic president and with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate.[7] Immigration policy has long been an issue that simultaneously fractured the parties from within and brought strange bedfellows together in any viable policy compromises.[8] The anti-immigrant movement that emerged in the 1970s created new cleavages in the electorate and facilitated a redistribution of power within both political parties. The Democrats were divided by both a desire to accommodate anti-immigrant labor unions and members of an emerging centrist faction, while still appealing to the party’s proponents of an expansive and inclusive New Deal welfare state. The party’s tradition of pluralism and commitment to human rights contrasted sharply with anti-immigrant activism. In the 1990s, the party was divided again, between those committed to an expansive vision of immigrants’ rights and the members of centrist Democratic Leadership Council, whose policies were espoused by President Clinton and others. Within the GOP, during the 1970s the restrictionists wrestled with those conservatives who—because of their commitment to free enterprise and deregulation—supported open borders and continued access to cheap labor. Over time, this dynamic continued to shift as the free-market deregulatory wing of the party lost out to the restrictionist deficit hawks in the 1990s.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as federal policy appeared increasingly directionless as it does today, states and local governments began taking more decision making about immigrants into their own hands. In doing so, local and state action pressured federal officials either to delegate authority to the states as seen with the development of the 287(g) program or to conform federal immigration policy to state preferences as seen in welfare reform. By driving immigration policy during the 1990s, states and localities ushered in a new era of immigration federalism. By 2010, states were shaping immigration policy in numerous ways, with some states pushing increasingly restrictive legislation while others sought to pass laws to increase immigrant integration.[9] As the federal government again has failed to pass significant comprehensive immigration reform, what remains to be seen is not if, but how immigration activists on both sides of the issue will continue the fight both over admissions’ policy and immigrants’ rights.


Sarah R. Coleman is an assistant professor of history at Texas State University, a former advisor to President Biden and the author of The Walls Within: The Politics of Immigration in Modern America.


[1]Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects : Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004).

[2]Jynnah Radford and Luis Noe-Bustamante, “Facts on U.S. Immigrants, 2017,” Pew Research Center, June 3, 2019.

[3]Pew Research Center, “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065: Views of Immigration’s Impact on U.S. Society Mixed.” Sept. 2015.

[4]Cybelle Fox, “Unauthorized Welfare: The Origins of Immigrant Status Restrictions in American Social Policy.” Journal of American History, 102 (March 2016), p. 1051-74.

[5]Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 210, 102 S. Ct. 2382, 2391, 72 L. Ed. 2d 786 (1982).

[6]Nicholas Kulish and Mike McIntire, “Why an Heiress Spent Her Fortune Trying to Keep Immigrants Out,” New York Times, Aug. 14, 2019.

[7]Nicole Narea, “Poll: Most Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants,” Vox, Feb. 4, 2021.

[8]Daniel Tichenor, “Strange Bedfellows: The Politics and Pathologies of Immigration Reform” Labor, 5 (No. 2, 2008), p. 39-60.

[9]Karthick Ramakrishnan and Allan S. Colbern, “The ‘California Package’ of Immigrant Integration and the Evolving Nature of State Citizenship,” Policy Matters, 6 (No. 3, 2015), p. 1–19.