Fifty Years Later, Groundbreaking Immigration Act Continues to Transform America

Since 1965, more than 60 million people have immigrated to the United States in the hopes of beginning new lives. Bringing a vast array of skills and experiences from countries all over the world, they have ushered our nation into an era of unprecedented diversity. But it has not always been that way.

Prior to the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson fifty years ago this month, U.S. immigration policy was primarily based on country of origin, as opposed to its current major benchmarks of skills, education, and family relationships with U.S. citizens. The pre-INA rules granted immigrants from Northwestern Europe vast preference over those from other nations, leaving America’s demographics largely unchanged for generations. The INA paved the way for immigrants from all across the globe to follow their dreams of coming to America, transforming this nation as a result.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Johnson summarized his new approach to immigration policy by stating: “In establishing preferences, a nation that was built by the immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission: ‘What can you do for our country?’ But we should not be asking: ‘In what country were you born?'” Johnson’s INA received overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law the next year, undoubtedly bolstered by the civil rights movement and a call to end racism and discrimination that had been gaining momentum throughout the early 1960’s. Half a century after being signed into law, the effects of the INA on the U.S. population are staggering. In 1965, 85 percent of the population was white and 87 percent of immigrants were from Europe. In 2010, more than 90 percent of immigrants were from outside of Europe. [See Fifty Years Later, the Immigration Act that Transformed America, by Guillermo Cantor, Immigration Impact, 5.Oct.2015.]

The stories of immigrants and their families strike a chord among many Americans. NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten has a new book out, A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story, in which he allows us to follow immigrant families from Bolivia, Korea, Libya, and El Salvador. The United States as an immigrant nation is an evolving story. We are no longer a country made up of people who mostly come from European roots. How we see ourselves as the population that make up this nation must also evolve. [See A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2015.]


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