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The 1965 Immigration Act

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 represents a significant watershed moment in Asian American history. Reversing decades of systematic exclusion and restrictive immigration policies, the Act resulted in unprecedented numbers of immigrants from Asia, Mexico, Latin America, and other non-western nations entering the U.S. In the process, these new arrivals, particular from Asia, have transformed the demographic, economic, and cultural characteristics of many urban areas, the larger Asian American community, and mainstream American society in general.

Origins of the 1965 Immigration Act

Prior to the mid-1960s, immigration into the U.S. was regulated by the provisions of the National Origins system. Implemented in 1924 as the U.S.'s first comprehensive set of immigration regulations, the National Origins system effectively limited immigration from Asia to token levels. These restrictions on Asian immigration were consistent with the overall political and cultural environment of the time that tolerated and even promoted nativism and xenophobia.

Saris from South Asia © Bandar Mandir/Corbis

However, after World War II, the new global political landscape brought the U.S. into the position of an international superpower, with new obligations and concerns around the world. As such, the U.S. could no longer maintain an isolationist stance within this new and ever-evolving dynamic of globalization and international geopolitics. Eventually, internal and external pressures led the U.S. to modify the restrictive policies of the National Origins system to reflect this new political position and the U.S.'s emerging leadership role on the international stage.

The U.S. passed several pieces of legislation that allowed displaced Europeans to enter the U.S. during and after World War II. In addition, legislation was passed during this time period that allowed Chinese, Filipinos, and Asian Indians in the U.S. to finally become U.S. citizens, after several decades of systematically being denied that opportunity. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act altered several aspects of the National Origins provisions and resulted in ending the absolute exclusion of immigrants from Asia, but still retained tight controls on the numbers of arrivals allowed per year.

President Truman actually vetoed the McCarran-Walter Act and argued for more liberalized provisions that would effectively end the restrictive quota system in the existing National Origins framework, but Congress overrode his veto and the 1952 Act was implemented. Later, President Eisenhower largely embraced Truman's positions and also attempted to liberalize the U.S.'s immigration laws, without success. However, by the time President Kennedy entered office in 1961, the stage was set for meaningful change.

President Kennedy (and later President Johnson) had a global vision that embraced the interdependence of countries and the benefits of liberalizing the U.S.'s immigration policies. The U.S. was in the midst of the Cold War at the time and Kennedy saw this as an opportunity to use immigration policy as a psychological tool against communism. That is, he wanted to demonstrate to the world that American ideals of freedom, democracy, and capitalism were superior to that offered by communist states such as the Soviet Union and its eastern European allies, China, Cuba, and other authoritarian states.

Filipino dancers in San Francisco © Morton Beebe/Corbis

He surmised that if the U.S. opened up its borders more to allow more immigration, people would "vote with their feet" and overwhelmingly choose to come and live in the U.S. These new immigration policies would be combined with President Johnson's "Great Society" anti-poverty and civil rights legislation and would thereby prove that the U.S. was indeed the "land of opportunity" -- the superior country in terms of opportunities for freedom and prosperity, as opposed to the totalitarian oppression of communist countries.

A Demographic Revolution

This momentum eventually led to the passage of the 1965 Immigration & Nationality Act. The Act abolished the restrictive national origins system originally passed in 1924 in favor of a quota and preference system. Priority was now given to "family reunification" so that U.S. citizens and permanent residents could sponsor the following types of immigrants in this order of preference:

  1. Unmarried children under 21 years of age of U.S. citizens
  2. Spouses and unmarried children of permanent residents
  3. Professionals, scientists, and artists "of exceptional ability"
  4. Married children over 21 years of age and their spouses and children of U.S. citizens
  5. Siblings and their spouses and children of U.S. citizens
  6. Workers in occupations with labor shortages
  7. Political refugees

Each country in the eastern hemisphere was given a quota of 20,000 but children under 21, spouses, and parents of U.S. citizens were exempt from this quota. Also, countries in the western hemisphere would not be subject to any quotas. Seventy-four percent of the eastern hemisphere's quota was allotted to the four family reunification preferences, 20% of the quota was given to meeting the two occupational preferences, and six percent was allotted to political refugees. Immigrants admitted using the second preference could also petition to bring over their parents (who would not be subject to numerical quotas).

The third and sixth preferences would have to be verified and approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. There was also a non-preference category for immigrants who would invest at least $40,000 in a business once they came to the U.S. Also, in 1980, the seventh preference for refugees was replaced by more comprehensive legislation that expanded the quotas for refugees, in response to mass refugee migrations for Viet Nam and other countries around the world.

These preferences were structured to encourage U.S. citizens already in the U.S. to sponsor their other family members as new immigrants. At first, the architects and supporters of this Act did not expect a large increase in Asian immigrants because since Asian countries had very low rates of immigration prior to 1965, the expectation was that there were not large enough numbers of Asians in the U.S. to matter. At the time, Asian Americans were only 0.5% of total U.S. population. Therefore, U.S. officials expected immigration from Europe to account for the vast majority of these new immigrants.

A vibrant and dynamic Asian community © Corbis

However, as it turned out, because most European immigrants had come to the U.S. much earlier than Asians, there weren't many immediate family left in Europe to reunite. Also, Europe was experiencing its own post-war economic boom, so there was little incentive for Europeans to immigrate elsewhere. On the other hand, Asian Americans and Asian immigrants saw this as a great opportunity to bring over family members, if they were U.S. citizens.

Many Asian war brides who married U.S. servicemen after World War II began using the family reunification preferences to bring over their siblings. However, the first Asians to immigrate to the U.S. under the provisions of this Act were mainly professionals and political refugees. Once they arrived in the U.S., they applied for permanent resident status and eventually for U.S. citizenship. Then many took full advantage of the family reunification preferences of the 1965 Act to bring over spouses, children, siblings, and parents.

Thus began the cycle of chain immigration and sponsorship -- initial Asian immigrants (many of whom came as professionals or refugees) would attain permanent resident and later citizenship status and would sponsor family members and relatives. After these family member and relatives arrived in the U.S. and became permanent residents and citizens, they in turn would sponsor their family members and relatives, and so on.

Opportunity and Immigration

Total Number of Immigrants Admitted by Continent and Selected Country of Birth, 1971-2002
Country of Origin
# of Immigrants
1971 - 2002
Africa 825,700
Asia 1 7,331,500
  Bangladesh 93,900
  Cambodia 150,900
  China 2 1,179,300
  India 1,005,100
  Japan 177,600
  Laos 215,800
  Philippines 1,508,100
  South Korea 839,600
  Viet Nam 1,098,000
Europe 3 3,300,400
North America 9,844,500
  Caribbean 2,936,800
  Central America 1,334,200
  Mexico 5,141,600
South America 1,479,700
All Countries 19,410,300
Source: Statistical Abstract of the U.S., 2004 (Table 8)
1 Includes middle eastern countries and Israel
2 From 1971-1990, data includes Taiwan
3 Includes old Soviet Union countries and Russia

This cyclical process of Asian immigration produced significant and unanticipated increases in the Asian American population beginning in the late 1960s. The table on the right uses data from the 2004 Statistical Abstract of the U.S. and provides descriptive statistics on the number of immigrants admitted to the U.S. by continent and selected countries of birth from 1971 to 2002 (the last year in which full statistics are available).

As the results show, since 1971, out of the 18 million or so immigrants around the world admitted to the U.S., about 7.3 million of them were born in Asia, with the most coming from the Philippines, followed by China (which includes numbers from Taiwan from 1971-1990), then Viet Nam and India. Overall, immigrants born in Mexico account the largest national group, with over five million coming to the U.S. since 1971.

These unprecedented numbers of immigrants from Asia have led to many demographic, economic, and cultural shifts in the Asian American community and mainstream American society in general. Once mainly composed of the U.S.-born, virtually all Asian American ethnic groups are now predominantly foreign-born due to the influx of so many immigrants as a result of the 1965 Act. Among other consequences, their presence has contributed to the revitalization (as well as the new development) of many Asian enclaves in several major metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Many urban areas in places such as New York, Los Angeles/Orange County, and other existing or emerging immigrant gateway areas that were either in economic decline or largely undeveloped have been transformed into thriving ethnic enclaves. Asian immigrant owners and workers who came to the U.S. since the late 1960s have contributed to the proliferation of ethnic businesses, enclave economies, and residential communities. In addition, many children of these post-1965 Asian immigrants have attained remarkable educational and professional successes as well.

The emerging presence of these post-1965 Asian immigrants have also led to occasional tensions as old-time residents and/or U.S.-born minority groups accuse many Asians of trying to "take over" or "exploit" their communities. In addition, the attempts of these post-1965 Asian immigrants at attaining political power commensurate with their demographic emergence and economic success has been a slower process. What we need to keep in mind is, being an immigrant does not mean a person is not an American.

These immigrants from Asia have contributed economically and culturally to not only their own ethnic communities here in the U.S. but also to the entire Asian American population, and to that of our entire country. In short, the ramifications of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act have been profound in many ways, with more developments likely to come as we move forward in the 21st century.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The 1965 Immigration Act" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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