Fifty years ago this month, on October 2, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed what became a revolutionary law.
The Hart-Celler Act, the Immigration and National Act Amendments of 1965, eliminated immigration quotas based on national origins. The law’s sponsors were looking backwards not forwards, fixing what had become anachronistic, embarrassing, bigoted restrictions that sent Holocaust refugees to death camps in Europe rather than life in America. But despite Johnson’s insistence that the legal change was “not a revolutionary bill” and “will not reshape the structure of our daily lives,” this decision transformed black versus white America into Rainbow America, giving us today’s browner, multiracial, multicultural, nation.
Although America is a nation of immigrants, only in the late 20th century did many Americans started admitting it. Since colonial days, America’s marvelous but somewhat delusional assimilatory mechanism turned “foreigners” into “natives,” some of whom then resented future foreigners. We usually imagine Revolutionary society as all native WASPs. This ignores the rich mix of citizens, speaking Dutch and German, hailing from across Europe and, of course, Africa.
Alas, this great absorber, forging one out of many, E Pluribus Unum, could be exclusionary. The Irish and German immigrants of the 1830s and 1840s would run into NINA signs—No Irish Need Apply—and other anti-immigrant hostility. This “nativism” combined prejudice against blacks, Catholics, and Jews with fears of outsiders stealing jobs or radicals subverting democracy.
Overall, the heroic stories of immigrants who prospered in the new Promised Land, by becoming American and improving America, trumped the underlying prejudices and tensions. Immigrants have made America, America. American democracy, technology, capitalism, and culture, all benefited from this wild, creative, ambitious, immigrant-spiced mix.
Americans learned Common Sense from a penniless British immigrant during the Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine, and about the Gospel of Wealth from a Scottish immigrant before the Civil War who became a Gilded Age tycoon and philanthropist—Andrew Carnegie. Americans gabbed on the telephone thanks to another Scot, Alexander Graham Bell and sang both “White Christmas” and “America the Beautiful” thanks to a Russian Jew, Irving Berlin.
Still, as the American dream and the growing ease of mobility triggered massive bursts of immigration starting in the 1880s, many natives feared being overwhelmed by newcomers. Now, Eastern and Southern Europeans from Italy, Poland, Russia appeared threatening. They massed into the country on what would be mythologized as “The Boat.” If often sounds as if one big ocean liner brought millions over at once, led by Steven Spielberg’s cartoon immigrant, Fievel Mousekowitz.
By the 1920s, Progressives, urban-based reformers now remembered for “liberal” changes protecting workers, wanted to save America from the foreign hordes. In 1921, the Emergency Quota Act calculated immigration limits of up to 3 percent of the foreign-born residents of each nationality living in the United States as of 1910. The Immigration Act of 1924 allowed only 2 percent of the number of foreign-born residents as of 1890—before the great Southern and Eastern European wave. Both laws excluded Western Hemisphere countries. In freezing the demographic dynamic as of 1890, this law dreamed of a supposedly simpler, more homogeneous time.
Those quotas doomed millions when Adolf Hitler seized power. Initially, Hitler wanted to expel Jews from Europe. But Jews had nowhere to go. These American quotas were followed in 1936 by immigration restrictions on Jews moving to Palestine, imposed by the British to placate the Arabs. What the historian David Wyman calls this “Paper Wall” of bureaucratic barriers helped embolden Hitler to launch his “Final Solution” of mass murder.
These restrictions now offended John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and their GI Joe peers. “The fundamental, longtime American attitude has been to ask not where a person comes from but what are his personal qualities,” President Johnson proclaimed, deeming the quotas “incompatible with our basic American tradition.” Instead, the 1965 initiative accepted immigrants based on family ties and skills. Special provisions for refugees were enacted, especially Cuban refugees.
The law’s racist opponents warned hysterically that this open-ended immigration act would change the face of America dramatically. It did.
Migrants from Central America, South America, and Asia flooded the country, legally and illegally. Although Jesse Jackson popularized the notion of a multicultural rainbow in the 1980s, the 1990s experienced America’s largest immigration wave, to date. America’s Hispanic population grew by an estimated 1 million a year—10 times faster than the white population, from 22.4 million in 1990 to 35.3 million in 2000, becoming 12.5 percent of the population. The percentage of whites dropped from 80 percent in 1990 to 75 percent in 2000, with 69 percent non-Hispanic white.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton described an increasingly brown country, saying that by 2050, “there will be no majority race in America.” Preaching “multiracial hope,” imagining a “new story line” beyond Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Clinton called America “the world’s first truly multiracial democracy.” Clinton wondered what values rather than which labels would build an American community amid such diversity. This racial realist warned: “The ideals that bind us together are as old as our Nation, but so are the forces that pull us apart.”
In this rainbow society, not just black and white, what Newsweek’s Ellis Cose called America’s “emerging mestizo future” blurred many long-accepted categories and complicating many long-held stereotypes. Hispanics juggled different racial identities being white, black, Indian, or, most often, mixed. Asian Americans out-earned and out-studied all other comparable groups. The word “racism” was losing its meaning, precisely when it was gaining popularity as the go-to synonym for all hatreds.
It’s too easy to discuss immigration through a dark lens of illegals, bigotry, and group tensions, because diversity creates fault lines. It’s too easy to counter with an overly sunny, kitschy lens of samosas, sushi, and Cinco de Mayo, because new ethnicities have expanded the American palette and perspective. Too often overlooked is the immigration saga’s individual poetry, how for millions arrival in America is a moment of liberation, of personal salvation, the start of their American story in the proud, safe, and free new world.
In rainbowing America, the 1965 Immigration Act changed American society. In LBJ’s words, “The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources—because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples. Most important, it welcomed millions to enjoy the gift of America and give back to America, enriching our culture, building our economy, tapping into our creativity, and validating our collective mission.