Michael Barone: Remembering the immigration act of 1965

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I watched the Senate debate the immigration issue the last two weeks with a certain sense of déjà vu, for I can remember sitting in the Senate Gallery more than 40 years ago and watching Sen. Edward Kennedy floor manage what became the immigration act of 1965. It was the first major piece of legislation Sen. Kennedy managed, and he did a good job, though the debate was little noticed, coming after the rush of Great Society legislation enacted under the stern direction of President Lyndon Johnson.

What's interesting when I look back at the debate is that almost no one anticipated what would happen as a result of the act -- the vast flow of immigrants, most of them legal but many illegal, from Latin America and Asia. "Our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually," Sen. Kennedy assured the Senate. "Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same." His brother Robert, when attorney general, predicted in 1964 that abolishing the restrictions on Asian immigration would result in a net increase of "approximately 5,000" and as a senator in 1965 said that "the net increase attributable to this bill would be at most 50,000 a year."

There was, I think, no intentional deception here: The Kennedys were echoing the expert testimony at the time. The mistake was to think that immigration and the American labor market in the future would look like immigration and the American labor market in the past. Lobbying for the act were groups representing the interests of the kinds of immigrants who had arrived in large numbers in the three decades after 1890 and that had been effectively barred by the restrictionist 1920s. Those laws set national origin quotas based on the nation's population as of 1890 and therefore excluded almost all Central and Eastern European Jews, Italians and Greeks. Barring immigrants on the basis of national origins came to seem un-American after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. So the 1965 act set maximum quotas of 20,000 per country and area-wide quotas of 175,000 for the Asia-Pacific Triangle (as it was called) and 120,000 for the Western Hemisphere -- the latter added in the Senate Judiciary Committee and criticized by Edward Kennedy.

But immigration after 1965 did not look like immigration before. The family reunification provisions authorized what turned out to be massive "chain migration" far above the quotas. Immigration from Latin America, a trickle when it was relatively unrestricted before 1965, increased vastly afterwards. Asians proved far more interested in immigrating than Robert Kennedy expected. Why? Because by the 1960s Latin America and Asia were modernizing, with vast numbers moving off the land and into cities, just as Southern and Eastern Europe had been doing when they produced so many immigrants from 1890 to 1924.

Another reason was that the American labor market was changing. The 1920s restrictions made little difference in the 1930s, when America's economy was in depression and immigration, except for refugees, would have been minimal whatever the law. Similarly from 1939-45, when the world was at war. Postwar America in the two decades after 1945 lived in the shadow of the Great Depression, which was expected to return after the war and which many thought would come again during the recessions of the 1950s. And anyway, as John Kenneth Galbraith was teaching at the time, the economy was being gobbled up by large corporations, with employees represented by large unions: not much room for immigrants in such an economy. As Democratic Congressman Donald Irwin said in the 1965 debate, "There is no longer room for a wide open gateway into the United States -- there are no virgin lands to settle and few occupations which are in dire need of labor."

Turns out all that was right about the past and wrong about the future. In time the economy changed, with growth generated mostly by small rather than big business, with huge job expansion not in old-time manufacturing but in new service industries, with lots of both high- and low-skill jobs. And lots of demand for both high- and low-skill immigrant labor. Which is where we are now as Congress faces the problem of how to get our immigration laws working in tandem with our labor markets.

As they do so, those on all sides seem to be assuming that immigration and the labor markets will work in the future as they have in the past. The experience of 1965 suggests that we should consider the possibility that that assumption may prove wrong. Immigration from Latin America has been surging, especially illegal immigration from Mexico. But Mexico's birth rate has been plummeting over the past dozen years. And the experience of Puerto Rico suggests that Latin immigration will taper off when countries there reach an economic level far below our own....
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