The Enduring Importance of the 1965 Immigration Act

What follows is an excerpt from my book “The Loneliest Americans,” which will be published on Oct. 12. (I also published an excerpt this week in the Times magazine.) The book is a mediation on the 1965 Immigration Act, which I argue is the starting point of the multiethnic society we live in today.


On Oct. 3, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson stood in front of the Statue of Liberty and said something that would be proved wrong: “This bill that we 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.” He was referring to the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, a landmark piece of legislation that lifted restrictive quotas on immigration from Asia, Africa and southern and Eastern Europe.

Its opponents at the time it was finally passed described apocalyptic scenarios in which the United States and its white population would be overrun by a horde of foreigners. Johnson, for his part, assured the public that the easing of restrictions would have only a mild effect on the demographics of the country. Most people, he believed, would stay in their home countries.

Over the next five decades, the Hart-Celler Act would bring tens of millions of immigrants from Asia, southern and Eastern Europe, and Africa. No single piece of legislation has shaped the demographic and economic history of this country in quite the same way.

Before Hart-Celler, immigration into the United States operated under the National Origins Act,a seemingly simple system that doled out up to 150,000 visas a year, distributed among different quotas for each nationality, calculated according to the 1920 census. The more people of your kind you had in the United States, the more people could immigrate from your country of origin. As a result, countries like Ireland, Germany and England would receive far more visas than those in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa. (African Americans and African immigrants were excluded from the calculation of quotas. While white Americans were classified by nation of origin, all Black Americans were classified by race, and as a result African countries were held to the minimum number of slots.)

This quota system did not extend to the “Orient.” The official practice of excluding Asians from the United States’ immigration policies had begun in 1875 with the Page Act, which barred Chinese women from entering the country to limit the ability of Chinese workers to start families. Just seven years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, ending all immigration from China and preventing any Chinese people living in America from ever attaining citizenship.

The law was largely a response to the labor market in California. A majority of Chinese people who had immigrated to the United States were young men. During the Gold Rush and railroad eras, these men served as cheap labor and were generally kept apart from mainstream society.

But as an increasing number of manufacturers and agricultural barons began replacing their work force with the Chinese, a nativist backlash quickly ensued, depicting the Chinese as subhuman carriers of smallpox and cholera. In 1881, George Frederick Keller, an influential cartoonist, drew what would become the defining image of the exclusion fight. A cartoon titled “A Statue for Our Harbor” reimagined the Statue of Liberty as a Chinese man dressed in rags, his right foot stepping on a skull. Around his head, in radiating points of light, are the words “ruin to white labor,” “diseases,” “immorality” and “filth.”

These indignities carried on into the early 20th century. Young Japanese workers, for example, were still permitted to enter the United States after the Chinese Exclusion Act and split their time among railroad work, mining, logging and small farming ventures. They, too, would soon feel the racialized effects of competition in America’s labor market.

After the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, nativist mobs openly attacked Japanese immigrants in the streets and called for boycotts of their businesses. This rash of xenophobic violence spilled over into local politics. Japanese students, who had been free to attend San Francisco’s public schools, were expelled and forced to enroll in the already segregated Chinese schools. This move, which caused a furor back in Japan, created a diplomatic headache for President Theodore Roosevelt, who had recently been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for successfully negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War.

In the end, Roosevelt could not smooth over America’s relationship with Tokyo, in part because of a man named Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant who had settled in San Francisco, studied at the University of California and ultimately relocated to Hawaii after the earthquake. Ozawa was the first foreign-born Asian person to apply for U.S. citizenship, in 1915. The fight went all the way to the Supreme Court, which concluded that while Ozawa was more than fit to become an American, the rights of citizenship could be extended only to white people.

This decision, which came down in 1922, set off a fight in Congress between lawmakers who saw an opening to create a fully racialized immigration system — one that kept out not only the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans but Jews as well — and a group of lawmakers, who, along with President Calvin Coolidge, believed new restrictions on immigration would destroy any hope of diplomatic relations with Japan.

Coolidge and his allies lost. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 defined an “immigrant” as someone who also had the right to eventual citizenship. And because people from the “Orient” were not white and, therefore, could not become citizens, the law effectively ended all Asian immigration to the United States.

Immigration law usually moves in lock step with a country’s foreign policy goals.The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States and China both declared war on Japan, which prompted a two-year diplomatic effort to classify China as a long-term ally of the United States. In response, Japan began a propaganda campaign that recast the war as a fight against Anglo-Saxon imperialism in the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

In dozens of pamphlets, articles and radio programs broadcast throughout Asia, Japanese propagandists derided any Asians who believed Americans would treat them as citizens with the same rights as white immigrants. They also set forth a vision of a unified East Asian continent that could usher in an era of unparalleled harmony and economic might. Much of the critique centered on a simple, compelling question: How could the Chinese ally themselves with a country whose racist immigration laws specifically targeted their people?

The provocation worked, although not exactly in the way the Japanese might have envisioned. Between 1941 and 1943, scholars, politicians and members of the media in the United States argued for an end to the Chinese Exclusion Act. The author Pearl Buck, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Good Earth,” drew upon her childhood in China as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, became a tireless advocate of the end of racist laws against the Chinese.

At a lunch gathering at the Hotel Astor in 1942, Buck noted that Japanese propaganda was starting to show signs of success and concluded that the United States could not win the war unless it convinced its Asian allies that they would be seen as equals in the eyes of American law. Later, Buck would write that as long as the United States continued to discriminate against Chinese people, “we are fighting on the wrong side in this war. We belong with Hitler.”

In May 1943, Buck, her husband and a group of intellectuals and publishers formed the Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion and Place Immigration on a Quota Basis. They used their influence in the media to blast out their message. That same month, the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization held public hearings on the possible repeal of the act. The opposition came mostly from labor organizations, veterans’ groups and “patriotic societies,” who dredged up much of the original logic for Chinese exclusion: an Asian influx would bring a wave of morally depraved men who would quickly displace native workers.

But the Citizens Committee had some powerful allies: Top military officials argued that China’s allegiance was crucial not only to winning in the Pacific theater but also to stabilizing the region after the fighting ended. And in October, as the Exclusion Act was being debated in Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt came out in favor of repeal. In an address, he said: “Nations, like individuals, make mistakes. We must be big enough to acknowledge our mistakes of the past and to correct them. By the repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws, we can correct a historic mistake and silence the distorted Japanese propaganda.” Just over two years after the Pearl Harbor attack, the law was repealed with the passage of the Magnuson Act, which allowed for some immigration from China.

Buck and her allies had put forth a vision of strength through pluralism — a nation whose diplomatic and economic ties to Asia could be deepened by liberal immigration laws that proved the United States did indeed consider the Chinese to be potential contributors to American society as opposed to inscrutable outsiders. In 1942, a poll commissioned by the Office of War Information found that over 80 percent of Americans considered China to be a strong ally of the United States.

The reality of the Magnuson Act, however, did not match the worldly rhetoric. Roosevelt, who just two years before had authorized the internment of Japanese Americans, brokered a compromise that allowed for only a small increase in the number of Chinese immigrants per year.

Future immigration bills would continue to restrict immigrants from Asia, though some concessions were made. In 1952, Patrick McCarran, a Democratic senator from Nevada, and Francis Walter, a Democratic representative from Pennsylvania, pushed through a complex, endlessly negotiated immigration law that both amplified the rhetoric of fear around Asian and Jewish immigrants and also, counterintuitively, lifted the ban on Asian naturalization, meaning Asian immigrants could now become full citizens. All “Oriental” countries were given a quota of visas, though they were minuscule: 100 to 185 per year.

But these allowances came with a caveat: Tight restrictions were placed on who, exactly, could come to the United States. Educated, oftentimes wealthy professionals with families were given preference over poor laborers. And while some new pathways for immigrants had been laid out, the bill also contained an “Asian-Pacific Triangle” provision that capped the number of total Asian immigrants at 2,000 per year.

The classification of “Asian-Pacific” was purely racial: A second-generation Chinese immigrant from, say, Argentina would not be able to apply for a visa as an Argentine. Because of his racial origin, he would always be Chinese, whereas the British-born child of Italian immigrants could come to the United States under the British quota. The McCarran-Walter Act also curtailed Jewish immigration. In both instances, the justification came out of the budding Cold War and the belief that Asians and Jews would propagate communism within U.S. borders.

The bill was intensely debated between nativists and more liberal immigration advocates in Congress. Senator McCarran argued, “The cold, hard truth is that in the United States today there are hard-core, indigestible blocs who have not become integrated into the American way of life, but who, on the contrary, are its deadly enemy.”

President Harry Truman ultimately vetoed it, only to be overridden.


In the past, pro-immigration politicians had been reluctant to commit to a full-throated defense of their principles for the very simple reason that nativism had always been popular. But in the debates over McCarran-Walter, a handful of lawmakers led by Representative Emanuel Celler of New York began to advance the idea that the restrictions on Asian immigration were racist and immoral. In a speech, Senator William Benton of Connecticut argued that the “great investment of our boys’ blood” in the Korean War had been undercut by this sort of shallow and ultimately meaningless immigration reform. “We can totally destroy that investment, and can ruthlessly and stupidly destroy faith and respect in our great principles, by enacting laws that, in effect, say to the peoples of the world: ‘We love you, but we love you from afar. We want you, but for God’s sake, stay where you are.’”

Those rebuttals, along with pressure to make the country’s immigration laws reflect the logic of the civil rights movement,would lay the groundwork for the eventual passage of the Hart-Celler 1965 Immigration Act. In 1960, white immigrants from Europe and Canada made up roughly 84 percent of the immigrant population in the United States. East and South Asians, by contrast, were around 4 percent. Between 1980 and 1990, a majority of the millions of immigrants to the United States came from Latin America or Asia.

Many of these workers brought over their relatives through the family reunification statute in the Hart-Celler Act. A Pew Research Center report found that in 2011, 62 percent of immigrants from the six largest “source countries” (China, India, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam and Japan) received their green cards through family sponsorships. You may have come to the United States from Korea to study engineering, received your H-1B visa and fallen right into the track of assimilation into the middle class, but your brother and sister might come over with a very different set of abilities, ambitions and visions for their life in this country.

As it turns out, the nativists were right about the coming hordes. The immigrants from Asia arrived in a series of waves throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. They included my parents, my grandparents, my mother’s five siblings, two of my cousins and me. And although their new country did have pockets of people who looked like them, they shared almost nothing in common with their fellow “Asian Americans” except some well-worn threads of culture, whether food or holiday rituals, and the assumptions of white people.

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