Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

The Law: Federal legislation that eased restrictions on non-European immigration

Date: Signed into law on October 3, 1965

Also known as: Hart-Celler Act

Significance: This first major change in U.S. quota policy greatly altered the ethnic makeup of immigrants entering the United States during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and prompted a massive increase in total immigration.

During the 1920’s, the federal government set fixed immigration quotas for each country of origin. During the very late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the United States had experienced heavy immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Because earlier European American settlers had come mostly from northern and western Europe, many policy makers believed that the more recent immigrants would not fit easily into American society. Accordingly, Congress passed immigration laws in 1921 and 1924 that set quotas for the numbers of immigrants from each region who would be admitted into the country. These quotas were based on the numbers of immigrants who had arrived during earlier eras. The quota system therefore favored northern and western European immigrants.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, retained the national-origin criterion of the 1920’s. It also added an overall limit to the numbers of immigrants from each country who would be admitted and within that limit gave each country a cap equal to 1 percent of the persons of that national origin who had been living in the United States in 1920. The 1952 law also added a series of preferences to the national origins system. The first basis rested on an economic criterion, giving first preference to immigrants with valuable skills. Other preferences, however, rested on the social normthat family relationships should enjoy a special status. For example, parents of existing U.S. citizens constituted the second preference, spouses and children of resident aliens the third, and other relatives the fourth.


President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which substantially changed U.S. immigration policy toward non-Europeans

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which substantially changed U.S. immigration policy toward non-Europeans. Johnson made a point of signing the legislation near the base of the Statue of Liberty, which had long stood as a symbol of welcome to immigrants. Lower Manhattan can be seen in the background. (Lyndon B. Johnson Library Collection/Yoichi R. Okamoto)


In 1965, Congress amended the 1952 immigration law. In part, this change was a response to the ColdWar politics of the time. American lawmakers were concerned about competition with communist nations and believed that more open immigration policies would reflect well on the reputation of the United States abroad. A major stimulus to this new legislation was the opposition to racially discriminatory laws arising during the Civil Rights era. Michigan’s Democratic senator Philip Hart, one of the sponsors of the 1965 reform, declared that the effort to maintain the American creed and to protect the American political heritage required that American immigration policy become more consistent with democratic moral and ethical principles.

The new immigration bill was initially introduced in the House of Representatives by New York Democratic representative Emmanuel Celler, and Hart cosponsored it in the Senate. Massachusetts Democratic senator Edward Kennedy was one of the strongest advocates for the new immigration law. President Lyndon B. Johnson also strongly favored the legislation. Other lawmakers objected that the proposed change would lead to a massive increase in immigration and that many new arrivals would be from nations other than the European countries that had historically provided most of America’s immigrants. Both President Johnson and Senator Kennedy argued, in response, that the law would bring few changes in either the numbers or the origins of immigrants. The House of Representatives approved the bill by a vote of 326 to 69 and the Senate by 76 to 18. On October 3, 1965, President Johnson signed it into law at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, an important icon to immigrants.

Provisions of the 1965 Law

When the act went into effect on July 1, 1968, it established an annual ceiling of 170,000 immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere, with each country in the Eastern Hemisphere limited to 20,000 immigrants. At the same time, however, the law initially permitted the entry of children, parents, and spouses of American citizens without limitations. Consequently, nearly three-quarters of the 20,000 immigrants permitted from each Eastern Hemisphere country were to be admitted on the basis of family reunification. Another 6 percent were to be accepted as refugees from repressive communist regimes and 20 percent because they had special skills or other qualifications. Immigrants from theWestern Hemisphere were limited to 120,000 per year, initially without the system of preferences.

Although the 1965 act was later amended several times, family reunification has continued to be the primary basis for immigrant admission. The first preference for quota immigrants is unmarried children, of any age, of U.S. citizens. Spouses of resident aliens and unmarried children of residents fall into the second preference. In practice, this means that after unmarried children of U.S. citizens who have applied for U.S. residence in a given year have been granted visas, the next quota slots are filled first by spouses and unmarried children of noncitizen alien residents. The third preference goes to professionals and persons of exceptional ability in the arts and sciences who intend to work for American employers. Married children, of any age, of U.S. citizens receive the fourth preference. The fifth preference goes to noncitizen sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens. Skilled and unskilled workers coming to take jobs for which American workers are in short supply are classified as the sixth preference.

Amendments to the law have allowed some immigrants outside the quota categories to be admitted without yearly numerical limitations. The greatest number of these are spouses of American citizens. Others, such as political refugees, can also enter the United States without being counted as part of the overall ceiling.

Consequences of the Law

Contrary to the predictions of Senator Kennedy and President Johnson, the 1965 immigration law was followed by both an enormous increase in immigration and changes in the countries of origin. From 1971 to 1980, 4,493,000 immigrants were admitted into the United States, an increase of 1,171,000 over the years from 1961 to 1970. The increase in numbers accelerated in the decades that followed. By 1990, of the estimated 21,596,000 foreign-born people living in the United States, about 43 percent had arrived during the 1980’s. By the year 2007, more than 38 million immigrants lived in the United States, accounting for about 12 percent of the country’s total residents.

Meanwhile, the primary countries of origin shifted from Europe to Latin America and Asia. By the late 1990’s, about one-half of all immigrants in the United States were coming fromLatin America and about one-quarter from Asia. During the last three decades of the twentieth century, immigration was the primary source of demographic change and population growth in the United States. As a result, scholars in this field use the term“post-1965 immigration” to refer to the new trends that followed the change in law.

Carl L. Bankston III

Further Reading

  • Capaldi, Nicholas, ed. Immigration: Debating the Issues. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1997. Collection of essays examining current U.S. immigration policy and its effects from a variety of perspectives. 
  • Isbister, John. The Immigration Debate. West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 1996. Extended essay on issues arising fromchanging federal immigration policy by an economist who is himself an immigrant and the son of a former deputy minister of citizenship and immigration in the Canadian government. 
  • LeMay, Michael C. Anatomy of a Public Policy: The Reform of Contemporary American Immigration Law. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1974. Scholarly exploration of changes in U.S. immigration policy with particular attention to the Immigration Act of 1965. 
  • LeMay, Michael C., and Elliott Robert Barkin, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Collection of more than one hundred primary documents—ranging from court cases and laws to editorials—on modern immigration issues. Includes edited versions of the Immigration Act of 1965 and other laws that make them easy for students to understand. 
  • Shanks, Cheryl. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1880-1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Study of the history of U.S. immigration policy showing how government criteria for admitting immigration have shifted from race to political ideology, wealth, and job skills. 
  • Waters, Mary C., and Reed Ueda, eds. The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration Since 1965. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. Study of modern trends in U.S. immigration that assesses the impact of the Immigration Act of 1965 on American society and government policy. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Congress, U.S.; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1921; Immigration Act of 1924; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952; Immigration law; Latin American immigrants; Quota systems.

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Zayn0 answers 12 February 2016 15:15 Quote

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