1965 – The Immigration and Nationality Act
The Global Leader in Codified Racism
The Naturalization Act of 1790 set the first uniform rules for the granting of United States citizenship by naturalization, which limited naturalization to “free white person[s]”, thus excluding Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, free Blacks and later Asians from citizenship.
Racial discrimination in naturalization and immigration continued despite the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified in 1868).
The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended naturalization to Black persons, but not to other non-white persons and revoked the citizenship of naturalized Chinese Americans. The law relied on coded language to exclude “aliens ineligible for citizenship” which primarily applied to Chinese and Japanese immigrants.
During the period when only “white” people could be naturalized, many court decisions were required to define which ethnic groups were included in this term. These are known as the “racial prerequisite cases“, and they also informed subsequent legislation.
For over a century prior to 1965, the U.S. was widely regarded as the global leader in codified racism. In fact, none other than Adolf Hitler wrote about his admiration of America’s immigration laws in Mein Kampf, saying: “The American Union categorically refuses the immigration of physically unhealthy elements, and simply excludes the immigration of certain races.”
After WWII, the United States faced both foreign and domestic pressures to change its nation-based formula for being racially discriminatory. The Soviet Union and other communist powers cited U.S. exclusion policies as evidence of American racial hypocrisy during the Cold War.
The Landmark Immigration Reform
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart–Celler Act was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support (320-70 in the House, 78-18 in the Senate) and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965.
This landmark legislation abolished the National Origins Formula, which had been the basis of U.S. immigration policy since the 1920s. According to the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Department of State, the purpose of the nation-based formula was “to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity” by giving preference to people from Northern and Western Europe while discriminating against people from Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.
As part of the Civil Rights movement, the Hart-Celler Act ushered in far-reaching changes that continue to undergird the current immigration system, literally changed the face of America, and set in motion powerful demographic forces that are still shaping the United States today and in the decades ahead.
Upon signing the legislation into law, Johnson said, “this [old] system violates the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man. It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country.” In essence, this landmark immigration reform eliminated race discrimination in immigration.