Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Another Famous Act of 1965:

Immigration Since 1965

There has been a lot of attention this year to the 50th anniversary of Selma and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But there is another law that was passed in October of that year that garners little attention in history classes. Yet it had a profound effect on American society.
President Johnson signing the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act
on Liberty Island in New York City.

As I have said over and over again on this blog, we cannot teach everything and we have to cut content often to avoid our class becoming a laundry list of one battle, one piece of legislation or one presidential election after another.

But the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, is the foundation for the mosaic of ethnic and racial diversity in the United States today.

As I looked out at the faces of my students last spring--nearly half had parents or grandparents from the Middle East and South Asia-- I realized how important it is to teach about this piece of legislation that is usually forgotten in the curriculum. Depending on where you teach, you might also have many students who would not be in your class were it not for this law, as it led to a dramatic increase in the numbers of immigrants coming to the U.S. from Latin American and Asia in particular. Most of teach about the dramatic increase in immigration during the period 1880-1920. Common sense would suggest we should teach about 1965, too, no matter what the ethnic background is of our students.

A few posts ago, I discussed the importance of including art, literature and music in our history course. But we also need to include basic sociological and geographic data. For example, check out the pie charts below:

Image above from Click on link for additional numeric data on immigration and questions teachers can use with students to analyze the data. 
You may have introduced students to the 1921 and 1924 immigration acts which preceded this law, if you spend any time discussing nativism, either in your unit on late 19th century immigration or when you got to the 1920s. But if not, you should introduce students to that legislation. No need to get into the nitty gritty details, but they need to understand what the old quota system was. I touched on this briefly in an earlier post. And see page 10 of this lesson from CUNY for a handy table showing the quotas (the rest of the lesson has some good stuff, too!)

When researching for this post, I learned 3 really interesting things I did not know about the 1965 act (one of the many reasons I love doing this blog):
  1. Prior to 1965, 70 percent of all immigrants to the U.S. came from just three countries!! Can you guess? The answer is at the end of this post.
  2. If you read the end of Johnson's speech about the law's passage, you will see that he concludes with an appeal to Cubans seeking asylum in the United States. He asks Congress for $12.6 million to do it. More on Cuban immigration here. Interesting in light of recent news about changes in U.S. policy on Cuba.
  3. Surprisingly, nobody in the government thought that the law would dramatically change the composition of U.S. immigrants! Obviously, if you look at the graphs above and link to the additional ones, a lot of people were wrong. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, for example, commented on the possibilities of large numbers emigrating from India:
The present estimate, based upon the best information we can get, is that there might be, say, 8,000 immigrants from India in the next five years ... I don't think we have a particular picture of a world situation where everybody is just straining to move to the United States ... There is not a general move toward the United States.
Boy, was he wrong! According to the Center for Immigration Studies article where I found the above quotation, there were nearly 28,000 immigrants from India in the next five years--more than 3 times what Rusk had predicted. It would be interesting to discuss with students how such incorrect predictions (and the not-so-subtle racism that motivated the assurances) allowed an otherwise unpopular measure to pass. Read more on that in this story from National Public Radio.
Additional resources on the law itself:
Additional resources about immigration in general & statistical data:
  • Migration Policy Institute - all kinds of articles, fact sheets, and statistics on contemporary immigration
  • If you've never been to the U.S. Census website, it is time! There is so much stuff on this website, it's hard to know where to begin, so check out these infographics for starters. (Just 'cuz I think they're pretty cool.) But if you're here for the immigration info, start here.
  • Demographic Info
  • Google things like "immigration statistics," "immigration demographics" and include the name of your state, region or city and you will find information specific to your community. Also check out this interactive map.
Additional resources about Latino Americans, Asian Americans and immigration from Africa:

Answer to point #1 above: 70% of immigrants to the U.S. came from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany. Did you guess right?

Coming up next post: Vietnam...


  1. To celebrate the celebrate the immigrant diversity of NYC and the 50th anniversary of immigration reform, we put together a feature page on the Brooklyn Public Library website - - and in researching content for this page, we discovered your content, which is very well-written and presented; it provided us with useful information that we linked to on our feature page. The feature page is currently highlighted on the Brooklyn Public Library homepage. Thank you. Lisa and Tam