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Insights from the 55th Anniversary of the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965

On October 3, 1965 —55 years ago this month—President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Immigration Amendments Act with the Statute of Liberty as his backdrop. This landmark legislation repealed the race- and nationality-based quota law that had been in place since the 1920s, altering the racial and ethnic composition of the United States. Immigrant admissions from the Americas increased in numbers, and immigrants arriving from Africa and Asia increased both in percentages and numbers after the 1965 act. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of the U.S. population that is foreign born rose from 5% in 1965 to 14% today.

The leading architect of immigration reform in the Senate was Sen. Philip Hart (D-MI), who had a strong record on civil rights and labor issues. In 1963, Hart had introduced legislation with bipartisan support that would have abolished the national origins quota system and increased the ceiling on immigration to 250,000. Up to 50,000 visas were set aside for refugees. Immediate relatives of US citizens and immigrants from Western Hemisphere countries would have been unlimited. Prominent Republican senators had signed on as original co-sponsors of Hart’s bill, including Sens. Prescott Bush (CT), Clifford Case (NJ), Hiram Fong (HI), Jacob Javitts (NY), Kenneth Keating (NY) and Hugh Scott (PA).

Hart promoted an alternative to the national origin quotas that became known as the per-country caps. His bill stated that not more than 10% of the total number of visas allocated by the preference system could go to any one country. The long-time leader of immigration reform in the House, Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-NY), added comparable provisions to his bill but set the per-country cap at 15 percent of the total.

A feature of Hart’s bill that is especially pertinent to today’s immigration reform debate is the provision that would have allowed for immigrants “needed urgently” on account of their “the high education, technical training, specialized experience, or exceptional ability of such immigrant and to be substantially beneficial prospectively to the national economy, cultural interests, or welfare of the United States.” Most significant is that these urgently needed immigrants would have been admitted outside of the preference system and would not have been numerically limited by the per-country caps. That a senator known for his close ties to organized labor would promote high-skilled foreign workers warrants further discussion.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 had included the repeal of the 1885 law that banned foreign workers coming as contract laborers and devoted 50% of immigrant admissions to persons of high education, technical training, specialized experience, and exceptional ability. The 1952 act, however, had numerically limited the admission of high-skilled immigrants to the national origin quotas. Monique Laney’s research discloses that critical applications of technological advancements during World War II prompted a race to recruit foreign scientists.

In the early 1960s, the United States was experiencing what was then called a “manpower shortage.” The U.S. economy was humming along with full employment, and the demand for persons with scientific and technological training continued to surge. Congress passed the Manpower Development and Training Act in 1962 that provided a labor market policy framework and centralized federal role in training to meet these growing labor market needs.

Recruiting high-skilled foreign workers was another way to meet the demand, and Hart would have moved these admissions outside of preference system and per country ceilings. The mechanism that Hart offered to regulate the admission of high-skilled foreign workers was vested with the Secretary of Labor. The labor secretary would have deemed what categories or classes of foreign workers were “urgently needed,” so long as the jobs required high levels of education, specialized experience, or technical training. The labor secretary already had comparable authority under the 1952 act, but the Hart proposal would have opened the opportunity to immigrants from around the world.

When he became president, Johnson embraced elements of Hart’s emphasis on high-skilled immigration. In his first State of the Union Address, Johnson linked immigration reform to his civil rights agenda. While distinguishing it from civil rights legislation, he made clear that he considered the existing immigration system to be discriminatory.

“Let me make one principle of this administration abundantly clear: All of these increased opportunities—in employment, in education, in housing, and in every field—must be open to Americans of every color. As far as the writ of Federal law will run, we must abolish not some, but all racial discrimination.

We must also lift by legislation the bars of discrimination against those who seek entry into our country, particularly those who have much needed skills and those joining their families. 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 pitted the needed skills of the immigrants against the national origin quotas as he pressured Congress to change the law. In the legislation his administration proposed, high-skilled immigrants would have made up half of all immigrants under the per-country caps. High-skilled immigrants, however, would not have been required to have an employer lined up before admission, and the “urgently needed” requirement would have been relaxed to “especially advantageous” to the United States.

Gallup conducted a nationwide survey in June 1965 that found a slim majority of those interviewed (51%) favored skills-based admissions over the national origins quota system. Gallup had performed special breakdowns of their data for the Johnson administration that revealed that the responses to the questions were correlated. According to the internal analysis, Gallup found that 71% of those surveyed listed occupational skills as the most important criteria for admitting immigrants. Gallup analysts concluded that the results indicated “a clear mandate for a policy based upon occupational skills.” Johnson’s messaging strategy of emphasizing merit over national origins appeared to have been a wise one.

As the legislation moved through Congress, the emphasis on high-skilled immigration was met with resistance by proponents of family-based immigration who favored increasing their proportion of immigrant admissions. Accomplishing both would have only been possible if overall immigration levels were increased, and polling data found that the U.S. public in the mid-1960s did not support raising immigration levels. Hart’s proposal to admit high-skilled immigrants outside of the numerical limits hinged on expanding the regulatory powers of the Department of Labor in order to assure that U.S. workers were not adversely affected by unlimited immigration; however, business interests strongly opposed efforts to enhance the powers of the Labor Department.

After contentious iterations, the final version allocated only ten percent to immigrants who were “members of the professions, or who because of their exceptional ability in the sciences or the arts will substantially benefit prospectively the national economy, cultural interests, or welfare of the United States.” It would be another 25 years before Congress expanded high-skilled immigration in the Immigration Amendments Act of 1990.

Today’s policy challenges certainly echo the debates surrounding high-skilled immigration 55 years ago. We still struggle to balance family and economic priorities within numerically limited system. The fairness of the per-country ceilings—enacted in 1965 to level the playing field—is now called into question because prospective immigrants from some countries wait in long queues due to the high demand for visas from their home country. That prospective immigrants from some countries are delayed years longer for visas than those from low-demand countries raises the issue of equity once more.

The good news is that the American public appears ready to reach “a new middle” on immigration reform, as BPC reported earlier this year. A recent BPC/Morning Consult survey found that jobs and wages were among the lowest-rated immigration concerns for voters. These findings are consistent with those Pew Research Center reported in 2019, finding that “roughly eight-in-ten U.S. adults (78%) support encouraging highly skilled people to immigrate and work” in the United States. Hart’s proposal to admit outside of per-country caps those high-skilled foreign workers deemed “urgently needed” has traction again today. The balancing act remains reaching an agreement on a “controlled system with clear criteria,” according to the BPC survey.

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