February 17, 2015

Black History Month: 50th Anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act

Fifty years ago at the height of the civil rights movement, our country’s immigration policy was radically changed. The Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as thImmigration_Bill_Signing_1965e Hart-Celler Act, abolished the national origins quota system which favored some Europeans and excluded Asians and Africans and established a new immigration system that focused on attracting skilled labor to the United States and reuniting immigrants with their families.

The 1965 law, which opened the door to immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America and changed the demographic makeup of our country, was signed by President Johnson at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965. An excerpt from President Johnson’s speech is as follows:

This bill says simply that from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here.

This is a simple test, and it is a fair test. Those who can contribute most to this country–to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit–will be the first that are admitted to this land.

The fairness of this standard is so self-evident that we may well wonder that it has not always been applied. Yet the fact is that for over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and has been distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system.

Under that system the ability of new immigrants to come to America depended upon the country of their birth. Only 3 countries were allowed to supply 70 percent of all the immigrants.

Families were kept apart because a husband or a wife or a child had been born in the wrong place.

Men of needed skill and talent were denied entrance because they came from southern or eastern Europe or from one of the developing continents.

This system violated the basic principle of American democracy–the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man.

It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country.

Today, with my signature, this system is abolished.

Today, the fight to create a fair and just immigration policy and make our country a more open place continues. It’s time to reform our country’s immigration system and create a clear and fair path to citizenship for aspiring Americans so that they can live and work without fear.