In Qualified Praise of the Immigration Act of 1965

Fifty Years After its Passage, the Landmark Law Gets Credit for Creating a More Diverse Nation, in a New Book by Visiting Professor Rose Cuison Villazor LL.M. '06

New York, December 21, 2015—When U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, he downplayed the significance of the new law, predicting it would “not affect the lives of millions.” Yet 50 years later, the act should be regarded as one of the most important laws of the civil rights era, according to a new book,The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act: Legislating a New America, co-edited by Rose Cuison Villazor LL.M. ’06, a visiting professor at Columbia Law School. 

Visiting Professor Rose Cuison Villazor LL.M. '06 is
the author of
The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act: Legislating a New America.

“The Immigration Act was instrumental in the creation of a more racially and ethnically diverse nation,” said Villazor, a professor and research scholar at the University of California, Davis, School of Law, who edited the new book with fellow UC-Davis Professor Gabriel J. Chin. Before the 1965 Act, U.S. immigration law had long expressed preferences for white immigrants, with country-of-origin quotas that heavily favored Northern Europeans. “The 1965 Act was the first immigration statute that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, place of birth, or place of residence.”

To celebrate the book’s release, Columbia Law School’s Center for the Study of Law and Culture hosted a panel discussion earlier this month about the significant legacy and continuing controversies of the Immigration Act. The panel was moderated by the center’s director, Kendall Thomas, the Nash Professor of Law and noted scholar on constitutional law and civil rights.
While Chin and Villazor’s collection makes the case for ranking the Immigration Act with such significant products of the “civil rights revolution” as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the panelists generally believed the time had arrived for further reform. The Act’s primary purpose was to abolish fixed country-of-origin quotas and admit immigrants without regard to race or nationality, but it still promoted policies that discriminated against refugees from non-Communist countries and ignored traditional Mexican migration, leading to today’s large population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
“Civil rights was clearly on the minds of the people who advocated for reform in 1965, clearly it was part of how Johnson talked about it, and it was in the language of the bill itself,” explained Columbia University History Professor Mae Ngai, who has written widely on immigration history and policy, including the books Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America and The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America. “But the Act also limited each nation to no more than 7 percent of the total number of green cards available. The rationale for this country maximum was said to prevent any single nation from dominating the immigration stream, to ensure diversity, though the cap had the effect of being a quota or limit on high-sending regions.”
The Western Hemisphere was previously exempt from quotas, but that exemption was eliminated from the new bill, making neighboring countries like Mexico subject to the same cap as countries much farther away. Legislators worried about Latin American migration “were able to get the country cap limitation because of civil rights thinking and language,” Ngai said. “They drew on the idea of equality to say we should treat all countries equally. Ironically it’s the most negative legacy of the bill. This civil rights provision that we treat all nations equally is the single largest source of unauthorized migration to the United States.” Ngai asked whether “there should be a place in immigration policy for more discerning and thoughtful bilateral considerations between countries, rather than a one-size-fits-all.”
Villazor wrote a chapter in the new book on family and immigration law, as the 1965 Act established family ties as the primary basis for gaining entry to the United States. But the Act’s emphasis on family ties also had discriminatory effects, noted Ngai. “We have a system that favors people with family members in the United States, people with certain skills, and people with certain means—even if you have a family member here, if you don't meet the income requirement, you're not able to come, or you have to have a family with a certain income.”
To celebrate the book’s release, Columbia Law School’s Center for the Study of Law and Culture hosted a
panel discussion on the legacy of the Immigration Act, moderated by the center’s director, Professor Kendall Thomas,
far right. The panelists included, from left to right, author Rose Cuison Villazor, Fordham Law School Professor
Joseph Landau, and Columbia University History Professor Mae Ngai.
Considering the large number of undocumented immigrants now in the U.S., Fordham Law School Professor Joseph Landau thought immigrant rights advocates could draw a lesson from the gay rights movement, which forged a successful “process of integration that broke through an age of stranger anxiety, making real inclusion possible.” The act of “coming out” had humanized gays and lesbians and made the majority acknowledge them, Landau said. “The movement was then able to find a trope, a rhetorical trope, a through line, a frame, couched in love, family, and ultimately marriage that served not only as a rallying cry and a doctrinal hook in legislatures and in courts but as a banner for something larger. I don't think we could have gotten anywhere as far as we have without a lingua franca that would help us overcome anxiety over gayness and make true integration and inclusiveness possible. So the question is whether the immigration movement can find its rallying cry, not about marriage specifically but more deeply about integration, as prior movements have done.”
While Landau believed the “Dreamers”—the movement of young people who were brought to the U.S. as children—came close to building a wider call to arms, he said, “the immigration rights movement is in limbo,” waiting for a unifying and humanizing force, “perhaps a leader who embodies the movement.”
Thomas credited Villazor and Chin’s book for placing the 1965 Immigration Act within the “great historical revolution” of the era’s landmark antidiscrimination legislation. “Bruce Ackerman's Civil Rights Revolution does not contain a single reference, as far as I could find, to the Immigration Act of 1965 or indeed to the subject of immigration,” marveled Thomas. “Some of that may have been due to the ideologically energy expended precisely on denying the paradigm-shifting character of the legislation. The force of [President Johnson’s] disavowal is really quite stunning, given what we know about the impact the Immigration Act has had in completely reshaping the demographic terrain of the United States.”
Now the immigration rights struggle should “provoke an enlargement of the civil rights idea to include the human rights idea,” Thomas said. “We don't normally think of human rights law as applying to the nation—human rights law occupies a status that is supernational. But I think the transformation of America into a multicultural democracy represents an opening to the world, so that belonging to America requires not a refusal to belong to the world but a cosmopolitan sensibility that will be the next great challenge to our country as we continue to take our uncertain and often ambivalent next step toward a truly inclusive America.”
The panel discussed these issues in front of an image from Johnson’s 1965 signing ceremony. The time’s great political figures gathered around the president, including Hubert Humphrey as well as Robert and Theodore Kennedy. Everyone—with the exception of Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye—was white, Villazor pointed out. “By 2043 the United States will no longer be a majority white country. Instead we'll have a minority majority. This change can be traced to the 1965 Act.”