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Opening the Gates of Liberty: An Examination of the Hart-Celler Act

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Studies
Wordcount: 3905 words Published: 20th Oct 2021

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If there is a single issue that can be said to be paramount in the current political moment, it is immigration. Around one fifth of the American population ranks immigration as the most important issue for their vote, and the wave of anti-immigrant backlash created by these voters is the main factor behind the election of the current President of the United States.

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This sentiment is in large part caused by the fact that in the last 50 years, the foreign born percentage of the American population has risen from 4.7% to 14%, and has transitioned from overwhelmingly European in origin to predominantly Hispanic and Asian, with immigrants from Europe being just 7.5% of naturalizations in 2017. This change in the composition and scale of the American immigrant population is largely attributable to the passage in 1965 of the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act, which lifted most of the earlier restrictions on immigration by non-white foreigners.

Both the supporters and the opponents of the Act believed it would have only a minor effect on the scale and the composition of American immigration, and this belief made it acceptable to a broad majority of Congress, which, except for a few liberals, had no substantial desire for major changes to the American immigration system, and opposed attempts to increase the scope of the legislation.

The impact of the Hart-Celler Act was unanimously misunderstood in its impacts in every contemporary statement and internal report by the White House and Congress, among every supporter and every opponent. Furthermore, given broad conservative opposition to the perceived excesses of the bill and the almost complete lack of public support for increasing immigration, if politicians in 1965 had possessed an accurate understanding of the impact of the Hart-Celler Act, it would very likely not have been passed into law or signed by the White House.

The opening of the borders in 1965, and the legalization of immigration in substantial numbers from countries outside of Northern Europe, marked a significant shift from the status quo, but in a broader context, it was a return to the historical norm for American immigration policy. In an average year during the 1865 to 1924 period, immigration rates were more than double the current yearly average, and yearly immigration rates were higher than the current yearly average in every year during that period except for six years during the depths of the First World War and the Long Depression.

From 1776 to 1924, for people from Europe, the United States had what were effectively open borders. Ellis Island turned away only one percent of those who came. Lured by the promise of America and the opportunities present in the rising power, immigrants came in such enormous numbers that a nation of 9.5 million in 1820 became a nation of 106 million in 1920. A nation whose population was, in 1776, almost entirely English, rapidly changed demographically. The booming cities of the Northeast filled with Irish and German immigrants, and as they grew wealthy and assimilated through the 19th century, new immigrants came in turn, Poles and Italians and Russians and Jews, poor and hungry and huddled masses fleeing from the Kings and Tsars of Southern and Eastern Europe, a million new Americans every year for a decade (Hing, 2004).

Anti-immigrant sentiment is almost as American as immigration itself, and the backlash to the immigrant wave during the 1890-1920 period was not very different from the backlash to earlier immigrant waves. In the 1880s, the Chinese Exclusion Act had banned all immigration from Asia, but immigration from Europe had remained untouched. In 1917, an attempt had been made to restrict immigration by requiring immigrants to prove literacy, but it was so ineffective that in the years after passage, immigration rates more than doubled. But in the 1920s the forces of exclusion won what they had wanted for decades, the fury of the nativists boiling over at last.

The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 was promoted by its sponsors as a bulwark against "a stream of alien blood, with all its inherited misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed," a measure to keep out the "filthy, un-American, and often dangerous" Jews and Catholics. Backed by fears of rising unemployment and of an America no longer overwhelmingly Protestant, backed by the AFL and the Ku Klux Klan, supported by 323 of 394 Representatives and 69 out of 78 Senators, it passed easily, and was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge just nine days later.

At a stroke, draconian quotas had been imposed on immigration, limiting total yearly immigration to just 2% of the persons of that nationality residing in the U.S in 1890. In the decade following the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, immigration dropped by 96%, falling to a trickle of Northern European Protestants.

Only 71 representatives voted against the Johnson-Reed Act. They were divided evenly across party lines, but united in the location and demographics of their constituencies. 61 of them were from the cities of Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, or the heavily Catholic states of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Not a single one was from the South. One of the most prominent voices against the bill was Emanuel Celler, a 35 year old immigration lawyer and freshman Representative from a heavily Jewish district in the Bronx who was also a third generation immigrant and a descendant of the first grup of prosperous German Ashkenazim who moved to New York fleeing anti-Semitism. His first major speech on the floor was an earnest appeal to the House to vote down the bill. Despite this failure, Celler had found his cause, and he would nurture it for the rest of his career in Congress.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, these decades of hatred and war and terror on a scale that is incomprehensible, Emanuel Celler pushed for change, for America to help those fleeing war and death, and on every occasion he was shouted down by those who wished for inaction.

When the M.S St. Louis sailed, in 1939, with 900 Jewish refugees aboard, to America, Celler fought for them to be admitted, and FDR turned them away. When he urged that unused visa slots be given to refugees, his opponents threatened that if he were to introduce a bill to do so, they would place further restrictions on immigration. For four decades, Emanuel Celler was, in the fight for immigration liberalization, a single solitary voice, stuck, seemingly permanently, in the wilderness.

When James Buchanan, the Representative from Texas's 10th Congressional district, voted for the Johnson-Reed Act, it was not a great shock, given that every representative from the South had voted for it. When Representative Buchanan died of a stroke in 1937, his successor in the House, Representative Lyndon Baines Johnson, differed from him on this issue not at all.

The Magnuson Act of 1943 allowed a mere 105 Chinese citizens a year to immigrate, and was so clearly reasonable that opposition was limited to not even a hundred representatives, almost entirely from the South, including Representative Johnson. Unlike the raving nativists that he voted with, Johnson appears to have been driven more by a desire to portray himself as a conservative, with concern about immigration being far from his mind.

In the more than five thousand pages of papers from his decade in the House, I could find only one that was even tangentially related to immigration, a brief reply to a letter from a constituent whose uncle wished to naturalize as a citizen (LBJ Library, 1937). Other than that, the record is clear. As a member of the House and the Senate, Lyndon Baines Johnson had no strong opinions on immigration, and on balance seemed moderately opposed to it.

This record of conservatism on immigration was not unusual for Lyndon Baines Johnson, however. During his twenty-three years in Congress, he never varied by any significant amount from the middle of the Democratic caucus, and was instead an ambitious but ideologically typical Representative and Senator. When Johnson was selected as Vice President by the Kennedy campaign, it was believed that he was a conservative Democrat who would show that Kennedy was moving to the center.

Nonetheless, when Kennedy died and Johnson rose to the Oval Office, he proved to be a much more liberal president than anyone had expected. Johnson seized the memory of the martyred Kennedy, and used the year before the 1964 election to push through the beginning of an ambitious civil rights agenda. In the 1964 election, he campaigned on a far-reaching agenda, the "Great Society," with promises of bold action on civil rights, poverty, education, healthcare, the welfare system, the arts and cultural institutions, transportation, consumer protection, the environment, housing, rural development, and the rights of labor in collective bargaining.

Immigration was not mentioned at all in the campaign.

Johnson won a sweeping victory in 1964 over Goldwater, and now in possession of a mandate from the people and supermajorities in both houses of Congress, he quickly began work on his agenda. On January 4th, 1965, when the 89th Congress convened, Johnson addressed them, and urged them to quickly pass the Great Society, this time including, in a brief paragraph, a call to extend opportunity "To those in other lands that are seeking the promise of America, through an immigration law based on the work a man can do and not where he was born or how he spells his name." This addition to the Great Society program seems to have come from Representative Celler, who was by now the Dean (most senior member) of the House, and the head of the powerful Judiciary Committee, and whom Johnson had leaned on heavily to pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.

On January 13th, Emanuel Celler introduced House Resolution 2580, which abolished the quota system of the Johnson-Reed Act, and which would, if enacted, allow non-white immigrants to naturalize in substantial numbers for the first time ever. Senator Phillip Hart of Michigan introduced a corresponding resolution in the Senate a month later. The legislation was, from the beginning, pitched as a modest measure, designed to ensure "the principle of equality and fair play for the people of all nations," not radically liberalize the immigration system. Despite the supposed modesty of the measure, conservatives and moderates opposed it, worried about potential increases in immigration quotas among non-white countries. The support of Michael Feighan, chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Nationality, and the representative for Ohio's 20th district, was essential for the bill to pass, and his initial reaction was lukewarm, at best. Feighan was a dedicated anti-communist and social conservative, and when John Kennedy had attempted to push immigration reform, Feighan had called him a "n****r lover" . However, 39% of Feighan's district was composed of first or second generation Americans from Eastern and Southern Europe, nearly all of whom still had relatives in Europe who wished to immigrate to the United States but had been stranded in Europe by the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act (Davis, 1998).

In the face of this pressure, Feighan proposed to change the bill to de-emphasize immigration by skilled immigrants from outside of Europe, and to instead emphasize family reunification, which would compose 60% of all immigrants (Feighan, 1965). These changes to the bill were readily accepted by the Johnson administration, which was eager to stay on the right side of public opinion on this issue (Ramsey, 1965). Reacting to the perceived weakening of the bill, liberal Senators Phillip Hart, Ted Kennedy, and Jacob Javits wrote an alternative opinion, arguing against Feighan's changes, which they considered to be "most regrettable."

The opposition to the Hart-Celler Act by conservatives also led Emanuel Celler to place remarks in the Congressional record "designed to correct mistaken notions" about the legislation.

He argues that the legislation, after Feighan's changes, would not bring about a very substantial change in the number of immigrants, increasing the yearly total by only sixty thousand, and that it would not let in a very large number of non-white immigrants. The immigrant population in 1960 was eighty five percent European or Canadian in descent, and Celler predicted that if his bill was passed, it would remain more than eighty percent European for the indefinite future, as the population of non-white countries were too poor to move to the United States. These predictions of little change were common among congressional supporters of the Hart-Celler Act as it moved through the House and the Senate. Senator Hiram Fong, the first Asian-American Senator and the son of Cantonese immigrants, stated to the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization that,

"Asians represent six-tenths of 1 percent of the population of the United States ... with respect to Japan, we estimate that there will be a total for the first 5 years of some 5,391 ... the people from that part of the world will never reach 1 percent of the population ...Our cultural pattern will never be changed as far as America is concerned".

Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach testified that,

"This bill is not designed to increase or accelerate the numbers of newcomers permitted to come to America. Indeed, this measure provides for an increase of only a small fraction in permissible immigration."

John Kennedy's younger brother, Edward Kennedy, reminded his colleagues that "First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same ... Secondly, the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset ... Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and deprived nations of Africa and Asia ... In the final analysis, the ethnic pattern of immigration under the proposed measure is not expected to change as sharply as the critics seem to think'. Robert Kennedy stated that if the bill was passed, "I would say for the Asia-Pacific Triangle [immigration] would be approximately 5,000, Mr. Chairman, after which immigration from that source would virtually disappear; 5,000 immigrants would come the first year, but we do not expect that there would be any great influx after that". The line from supporters of the Hart-Celler Act was unanimous. It was an extension of the Great Society to our policy towards immigration, a measure designed to show equal treatment to every nation, but it would not measurably alter the scale or the composition of immigration to the United States (CIS, 2016). In the first five years of the 1960s, the United States had admitted 283,000 immigrants a year, 85% of whom were white. The Hart-Celler Act would, everyone believed, change those numbers to 350,000 immigrants a year, 80% of whom were white.

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Even to Congressmen that had no major desire to change the immigration system, it seemed a convincing enough idea. Strom Thurmond, an opponent of the bill and diehard white supremacist, stated that "The preferences which would be established by this proposal are based, I believe, on sound reasoning and meritorious considerations, not entirely dissimilar in effect from those which underlie the national origins quotas of existing law." The fact that it was backed by the powerful and popular President of the United States provided an added incentive to support the bill. Michael Feighan, the head of the Immigration Subcommittee, was won over to support the bill after his changes were made, and on September 30th, 1965, just 9 months after it was introduced, it passed the House and the Senate, and was soon scheduled to be signed into law by President Johnson on October 3rd, at a ceremony beneath the Statue of Liberty.

The signing of the bill required a speech from the President, and the text and various drafts of this speech are my central artifact. There were seven different drafts of the speech President Johnson gave, worked on by his staff over the course of several weeks. Every single version contained the same set of introductory phrases, which repeated the main message of the bill's supporters.

Johnson began his speech with a brief joke about the Congressman for Liberty island, and then addressed the bill by stating that,

"This bill 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, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power." (Johnson, 1965)

These introductory sentences, aside from a few modifications to the grammar, were consistent in every draft of the speech and were clearly intended as a central part of the message on the Hart-Celler Act. This was not the revolution of the Civil Rights Act, of the War on Poverty, or Medicare or Medicaid. The Hart-Celler Act was a demonstration that the U.S was committed to equal treatment for men, no matter their nation of origin, but it was not intended or understood as a bill that would cause any major change to the demographic structure or scale of the immigrant population. This was intentional, as there was no substantial public appetite for increased immigration.

In June 1965, Gallup polled Americans, and just 7% said that immigration should be increased, as opposed to 33% who believed it should be decreased from the minimal level it was at.

It was believed that in the years following the passage of the bill, that the immigrant population would increase from two hundred-eighty thousand to three hundred forty thousand a year over the next few years. In 1966, three hundred and twenty three thousand people naturalized, in 1967 three hundred sixty eight thousand, in 1968, four hundred fifty four thousand. By 1980, the yearly number had reached five hundred twenty five thousand, and by 1990 it had reached more than one and a half million a year. A bill designed to increase immigration by 20% had increased it 400%. The new immigrant wave was far different in composition than anyone had expected. It became majority non-white within a decade, and by now, more than 85% of immigrants to the U.S are from non-European countries.

Emanuel Celler had believed that the era of mass immigration was over. Lyndon Baines Johnson had believed he was not signing a revolutionary bill. The liberals in the Senate had believed that it would not change enough and urged more action, and yet they did not know how large the impact would be. The conservatives, in their direst fears, predicted immigration on a scale that was believed to be absurd and that proved to be far too low. Every single one of them was wrong.

The Hart-Celler Act could not get out of committee until it was changed to as to limit the impact it would have. Immigration was an issue of little importance in American public life, and President Johnson had never shown any real interest in changing the system. Furthermore, every argument that was given in support of the bill included, as a matter of course, that it would not have a significant impact. The evidence shows that the Hart-Celler Act was passed by Congress because Congress believed it would be a mostly symbolic measure, and that given the broad opposition to increasing immigration, especially immigration in substantial numbers by non-white foreigners, if the true effects of the bill on American society had been known, it would not have been passed, and quite possibly would not have been backed by the White House.

Annotated Bibliography

CIS. "The Legacy of the 1965 Immigration Act." ​CIS.org​, 2016, https://cis.org/Report/Legacy-1965-Immigration-Act​. (This report, from the nativist group CIS, documents a number of contemporary quotes about the Hart-Celler Act which show a complete misunderstanding of the effects of the bill.)

Congressional Report, 1965, p. 5006, Judiciary Committee Opinion on the Immigration and Naturalization Act. (The majority opinion of the Judiciary Committee, by Michael Feighan, the Committee chair, shows how the Immigration and Naturalization Act was changed so as limit the impact it would have, which shows that if the true scale of the bill had been broadly understood, it may very well not have passed.)

Davis, Michael G. "Impetus for Immigration Reform: Asian Refugees and the Cold War." ​The Journal of American-East Asian Relations​, 1 Oct. 1998, (This article, published in the 1990s, shows how the actions of immigration conservatives such as Feighan unintentionally increased immigration despite their own beliefs.)

Hing, Bill Ong. ​Defining America through Immigration Policy​. Temple University Press, 2004. (This book provides commentary and context for the evolution of American immigration policy in the 21st century.)

Johnson, Lyndon B. "Naturalization Application." Received by Edward Clark, Austin, TX. (This letter, where Representative Johnson replies to a constituent requested a visa extension for education in a brief letter that encourages her to visit the consulate in El Paso, is the only document related to Immigration in the entire archives of Lyndon B. Johnson during his 23 year long service in Congress. This shows that President Johnson did not have a durable interest in immigration, and that his public misunderstanding of the impacts of the Immigration and Naturalization act reflect a genuine lack of knowledge rather than deception.

Johnson, Lyndon Baines. President Lyndon B. Johnson's Remarks at the Signing of the Immigration Bill, Liberty Island, New York. 3 Oct. 1965. (This is the speech that LBJ gave upon signing the bill, the central artifact which determined this inquiry by first indicating that the Johnson administration and Congress were unaware of the true impacts of the Hart-Celler Act.)

"Michael Feighan & LBJ." ​Tom Gjelten​, Tom Gjelten, 28 Aug. 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20160506171239/http://www.tomgjelten.com/feighan-lbj/. (This web report, from Immigration scholar Tom Gjelten, shows how the changes made to the bill to lower immigration numbers actually unintentionally increased them.)

United States, Congress, Clark, Ramsey. "Report on the Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act." ​Report on the Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act​, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, 1965. (This report shows the understanding that the Johnson Administration had of the bill at the time, and shows that, in public and private records, they understood it to be a mostly minor change.)


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