50 Years Later, How Far Have We Come: A Look at the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act

Tomorrow, October 3, marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. On this day 50 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech from New York’s Liberty Island, introducing to the nation a vision for a more inclusive, more capable immigrant population. Today we look at this historic moment, which would significantly change future demographics in the United States, and analyze through excerpts from Johnson’s speech whether the United States has truly achieved the vision set forth through the law’s passage.

On Fostering a More Diverse America:

“Only 3 countries were allowed to supply 70 percent of all the immigrants. Families were kept apart because a husband or a wife or a child had been born in the wrong place. Men of needed skill and talent were denied entrance because they came from southern or eastern Europe or from one of the developing continents. This system violated the basic principle of American democracy — the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man.”

Prior to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the U.S. immigration system worked on the basis of national-origins quotas, which were determined using previous U.S. census data. For decades, these country-specific quotas favored largely white Western European countries like Britain and Germany and barred many immigrants from various other regions around the world — namely Asia, Latin America, and Africa — from ever entering the United States. The administration of President John F. Kennedy envisioned a different system, one in which skill, capability, and family unification took precedence over country of origin. After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson honored Kennedy’s legacy by proudly championing this cause. The Act abolished the National Origins Formula, replaced the quotas with caps, and ultimately opened doors for immigrants from both hemispheres.

As a result, today’s immigrant population in the United States is a diverse group, representing nearly every country around the world. Mexican, Indian, and Chinese immigrants make up the three largest groups. By 2000, immigrants from Central and South America comprised roughly half the total immigrant population. Most recently, however, immigrants from Asia are quickly becoming the fastest-growing foreign-born population. Opening the doors to new regions of the world introduced the United States to new cultures and traditions, and immigrants brought new skills and innovations that have added to the fabric and advancement of this nation and continue to benefit us all today.

Contributions of Immigrants:

“This bill says simply that from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here… This is a simple test, and it is a fair test. Those who can contribute most to this country — to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit — will be the first that are admitted to this land.”

With the passing of this bill, Johnson saw not only the potential for greater levels of inclusion, but also greater economic success for the United States. He saw populations of immigrants from around the world eager to contribute to the growth and economic might of America and hungry to achieve their American Dream.

Since the Act’s signing, immigrants have exceeded the expectation to contribute and, as a group, have proven to be an economic powerhouse. For example, forty percent of today’s Fortune 500 companies — companies like IBM, General Electric, and Google — were founded by immigrants or their children. Combined, these companies create millions of jobs and generate over $4.2 trillion in revenue for the United States, a number greater than many developed countries’ GDPs. Further, in 2011, immigrants founded 28 percent of new businesses in the United States, despite representing just 13 percent of the population, and the largest share of these new businesses was founded by immigrants from Mexico. In fact, entrepreneurship became so prominent among the Mexican-immigrant community that, by 2012, more than one in ten Mexican immigrants was an entrepreneur.

Immigrants also continue to make vital contributions to tax and entitlement programs; work many hard-to-fill jobs in sectors like agriculture, hospitality, and healthcare; and boost many sectors that have recently struggled, such as the housing market. Between 1996 and 2011, immigrants contributed a near $200-billion surplus to the Medicare Hospital Trust Fund, which supplies hospital and home healthcare for 50 million Americans. Furthermore, immigrants supported Medicare through the height of the Great Recession, adding a $16.3-billion surplus at a time when the contributions of native-born Americans fell sharply. Hispanic immigrants alone added nearly $10 billion to Medicare in 2013 in addition to adding over $46 billion to Social Security.

Immigrants help fill labor gaps in industries where the native-born population is over-qualified or not willing to work. Home health care is just one example. As America ages and retires, the United States estimates that it will need an additional 1.3 million direct-care health workers by 2020. Immigrants are quickly filling this shortage, as they are nearly twice as likely to work as home health aides than the native-born population.

And immigrants are not simply filling vacant jobs in low-skilled areas of labor, but also working to fill increasing demand in vital occupations like physicians, surgeons, and computer programmers. In less than ten years, the United States will face a projected shortage of nearly 100,000 doctors. Lucky enough, immigrants working in the U.S. healthcare sector are nearly twice as likely to work as physicians and surgeons as their U.S.-born counterparts.

Immigration is necessary to maintaining and empowering some of the most important sectors of the U.S. economy. Fifty years ago, by broadening the pool of talented individuals in the United States, passage of the Act introduced to the United States millions from around the world who continue to contribute ideas, innovations, and revenue that strengthen and support our country.

Sustaining the Vision:

“Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide. The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources — because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.”

A half-century later, it is time to thoughtfully examine where our current immigration policy must now evolve. From Midwestern farms to Silicon Valley startups, voices across the nation have called upon our country’s leaders to keep doors open for individuals eager to help build and revitalize important American industries and communities. Today many cities suffering from economic slumps and population decline realize the growth that immigration can bring to a community — to add trillions to home values, to contribute billions in spending power, and create new companies and jobs for American workers.

Sadly today bright students and genius inventors from abroad are often forced to return home after completing their education or groundbreaking research here. Just 7 percent of all available visas are allocated for employment reasons — yet, in other countries, employment-based visas account for as much as 50 percent. Further, we have no designated visa for entrepreneurs, often making it impossible for foreign-born individuals to start and keep their own companies in the United States.

Remembering the progress that the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act marked, we must call upon our leaders in Washington to pass smart, sensible, and fair immigration reforms that will power our economy and country forward for generations to come.


From Our Partners:

Check out the National Immigration Forum’s commemoration of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act: “America’s Potential: The Next 50 Years of the 1965 Immigration Act.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…