Remembering the Immigration Act of 1965:
the 50th Anniversary of a Population Game-Changer
An introduction to immigration historian Dr. Otis Graham’s 2005 NPG Forum paper
A Vast Social Experiment: the Immigration Act of 1965
Half a century ago this year, Congress enacted – and President Lyndon Johnson enthusiastically signed – a law broadly amending the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. This 1965 Act set up a radically different and far more receptive immigration regime for the United States.
Its architects in Congress and the Executive at that time applauded the Act as, above all, a major reaffirmation of America’s commitment to full international civil rights and racial equality – ending the national origins system that favored admission of northern Europeans and Latin Americans and largely shut out Asians, southern and eastern Europeans, and Africans.
Perhaps disingenuously, most top government leaders defending the Act minimized concerns that it would bring about the return of mass immigration after nearly four decades of low intake or change the racial and ethnic balance of the United States. But within a decade, it was widely recognized that the Act was a major legislative reordering of the size and composition of immigration flow – and a major stimulant to continued U.S. population growth in the wake of the 1947-1964 baby boom.
Population Consequences Unforeseen – or Ignored
In his probing analysis done for NPG in 2005, and in his numerous other writings on immigration history, public historian Otis Graham captures interest group dynamics and legislative self-deception – as well as the potent mixture of idealism and self-interest. Graham also highlights the willful ignorance of changing world population and migration trends, which led to the many unintended consequences of the Act experienced today.
Looking at the apparent U.S. and world demographic trends of half a century ago, one suspects Washington Legislative and Executive branch elites of the day were playing dumb about the likely consequences of the Act. Population was exploding on the planet, particularly among major prospective migrant-sending countries. In 1965, world population was 3.3 billion, but growing by 2.05 percent a year – a pace that would continue until the 1990s.
More Immigration Enacted Despite U.S. Population Boom
Washington at that time had no reason to fear lagging U.S. population growth, as it professes to do 50 years later in again pushing for more immigration. America then was in the latter stages of a population explosion that started in 1947 – the baby boom, which began to ebb in 1967. In the two decades following 1947, U.S. population had grown at a third-world pace, averaging annual population increases of 1.65 percent.
It is remarkable that a U.S. government confronted with finding jobs, education, and infrastructure for such a vast number of new citizens would so easily enact major increases in immigration. Therein lies Washington’s efforts to present the Act as just a demographically benign advancement of international civil rights and racial acceptance.
Decades of intense immigration fraud and smuggling in China and other Asian countries were then a matter of record – hardly consistent with the assurances of such notables as Attorney General Robert Kennedy that Asian immigration demand in response to the more generous quotas would be modest. Asia’s population has been growing at over 2.0 percent annually since 1950, increasing two and a half times by 2000.