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Friday, February 7, 2020

February 7, 2020: Immigration Laws: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

[On February 5, 1917 Congress passed the influential and exclusionary Immigration Act of 1917. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Act and other stages across the history of immigration laws, leading up to a weekend post on where our laws and narratives stand in 2020.]
On why the landmark 1965 law was truly groundbreaking, and two ways to complicate that narrative.
If this week’s series thus far has done what I hoped it would, it has (among both more specific topics for each post and other continuing threads and themes of course) convinced you of the historical truth I articulated most overtly at the end of yesterday’s post: that for much of American history, the creation and development of immigration laws served not just to discriminate against particular communities of arrivals, but also and often especially to embody an exclusionary attitude toward American communities already here. With that longstanding history in mind, it’s difficult to overstate just how much the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Celler Act) represented a break from that legacy, a law intended to make it both possible and easier for many groups (including the Asian immigrants who had been so fully excluded for nearly a century) to come to the United States. For that reason, I think it’s entirely fair and accurate to see the law as a third component to the prominent Great Society laws (the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act) through which President Lyndon Johnson and his Democratic and progressive allies helped move America significantly further toward equality and justice.
That’s a central aspect of the 1965 Act, and one that again is difficult to overstate. Yet history is multi-layered (that could probably be a motto for this blog!), and any narrative of historical events that emphasizes only one element or meaning is likely limited at best. One way to complicate our narratives of the 1965 Act is to note that, while it importantly did away with quotas based on national/ethnic origins, it also created a system of preferences that was in its own way quite hierarchical as well. One such preference, for family reunification, was entirely understandable and difficult to critique (although the Trump administration has tried to through its propagandistic attacks on “chain migration”). But the 1965 law also created a number of other preferences, from the economic (the “million dollar visa” category about which I wrote earlier in the week) to the educational (prioritizing immigrants with particular levels of and degrees in higher education). Each of those preferences and categories can certainly be supported (although I find the “million dollar visa” quite disturbing, to be honest), but at the very least they make clear that even after the 1965 Act, US immigration policy continued to define certain immigrant communities as more desirable than others (and, more troublingly, vice versa).
The other way to complicate narratives of the 1965 Act as representing a significant shift in favor of American diversity is one for which I’ve been arguing since my Chinese Exclusion Act book. The simple fact is that nearly all of the national and ethnic categories that benefitted from the 1965 law had already been part of the US, in many cases for centuries—I made that case at least for Asian American communities in that book, and do so for Muslim American communities (another group frequently associated with post-1965 immigration) in a chapter of my most recent book. While certainly post-1965 America has seen increasing diversity (both in terms of the number of distinct nations represented and the number of Americans from those nations), it’s quite different (and to my mind far more accurate) to describe that trend as a return to and amplification of longstanding, foundational diversity, rather than something new. After all, to describe this post-1965 diversity as new (even if one is doing so in order to celebrate it) is not just inaccurate (although, again, I believe that it is); it also makes it far easier for critics of this trend to argue that it represents a change in American identity, a change that exclusionary voices seek to define as threatening and destructive. Instead, it’s far more accurate to say that the 1965 Act represented a change in American immigration law, one that allowed such laws for the first time to amplify rather than seek to limit our foundational diversity.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

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