In 1965, A Conservative Tried To Keep America White. His Plan Backfired Fifty years ago, the Immigration Act lifted an old quota system that favored immigrants from Europe. But before it passed, one congressman made a change — one he thought would limit the act's impact.


In 1965, A Conservative Tried To Keep America White. His Plan Backfired

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Fifty years ago, America opened its doors wider. October 3, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed a new immigration law that opened America to newcomers without regard to color. U.S. immigration policy had favored Europeans for decades. NPR's Tom Gjelten has written a new book on the law that changed America's complexion. It's called "A Nation Of Nations." Here's his story.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light...

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The ceremonies at which immigrants become U.S. citizens reinforce a new American identity in people born in other lands. At this outdoor ceremony in Washington this summer, 30 foreigners sat quietly, then rose, one by one, as the countries of their birth were announced.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ghana, Honduras, India, Indonesia...

GJELTEN: That these people could become U.S. citizens is a mark of how things changed with the 1965 Immigration Act. Without that law, most would have been left out.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sierra Leone, South Korea...

GJELTEN: Before '65, the United States chose immigrants on the basis of their ancestry. And Northern Europeans got most of the slots. Anyone coming from Ghana or India or Korea had to wait for one of just a few dozen openings. It was a national origin quota system - blatant discrimination. And in January 1964, with the nation awakening to the civil rights struggle, President Lyndon Johnson told Congress it was time to replace national origin quotas with something more fair.


LYNDON B. JOHNSON: 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?


GJELTEN: Johnson proposed giving visas first to those whose skills would be, quote, "especially advantageous" to the United States, with people of different nationalities treated equally. But some conservatives insisted it was fine to prefer immigrants of a particular race or nationality. People from Europe, they argued, made better Americans. These defenders of national origin quotas had an ally in the chairman of the House Immigration subcommittee, Democrat Michael Feighan of Ohio. For months, Feighan refused even to hold hearings on the administration bill, and he barely spoke to his fellow Democrat, Emanuel Celler, the bill's House sponsor.

BENJAMIN ZELENKO: He was not a pleasant man. I don't know what motivated his meanness.

GJELTEN: Benjamin Zelenko was a top aide to Emanuel Celler back then and remembers the late Congressman Feighan as an adversary.

ZELENKO: He was an impossible person to work with.

GJELTEN: Congressman Feighan did finally agree to support an immigration reform, but he wanted a key change. Whereas Johnson wanted visas to go first to those immigrants with valuable skills, Feighan wanted to favor immigrants who already had relatives here. His theory - prioritizing family unification would be a way to keep out most of the non-European immigrants because they generally didn't have relatives here. Again, Benjamin Zelenko.

ZELENKO: He thought that the families that would be unified would be a reflection of the original immigrants. He didn't realize that we were already demographically changing.

GJELTEN: Several conservative groups that wanted to maintain national origin quotas were persuaded that a family unification emphasis would accomplish the same thing, and they agreed to support Feighan's version of the immigration reform. The bill passed, and President Johnson signed it in an outdoor ceremony under the Statue of Liberty. Because of Feighan's changes to the bill, no one, including Johnson, thought it would have much effect on who would be immigrating to the United States.


JOHNSON: This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions.

GJELTEN: But it did turn out to be revolutionary - ironically, in good part because of Michael Feighan's changes. In the end, the emphasis on family unification led to chain migration. A Korean woman who married a U.S. serviceman and became a citizen could bring over all her brothers and sisters, plus their spouses, who in turn could bring their brothers and sisters. And it was mostly people from the developing countries who were inclined to do that.

MUZAFFAR CHISTI: You had a huge pent-up feeling of wanting to come to the new world.

GJELTEN: Muzaffar Chisti is a senior lawyer at the Migration Policy Institute.

CHISTI: These countries were coming out of their colonial powers. And they were breathing the fruit of freedom and fruit of new education.

GJELTEN: As immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America gained a foothold in this country, the family unification provisions of the 1965 law enabled their members to grow exponentially. Before the law was passed, 7 of 8 immigrants were from Europe. Fifty years later, 9 of 10 immigrants are from outside Europe. Muzaffar Chisti, himself an immigrant from India, says the United States - intentionally or not - sent a new message to the rest of the world.

CHISTI: That America is not just a place for certain privileged nationalities to come. We are truly the first universal nation. That may have been the promise of the founding fathers, but it took a long time to realize it. And the '65 act was critical in making that happen.

GJELTEN: It is happening now in a big way. At the naturalization ceremony here this August, just two of the 30 new American citizens came from Europe. Bolormaa Yunren is from Mongolia.

BOLORMAA YUNREN: I am very, very happy to become a part of this great country. It's a country of great opportunity, of great dreams, of education, work, to fulfill your happiness.

GJELTEN: But on this 50th anniversary, not everyone is celebrating this law that made America more diverse. In this election season, there's a new complaint. Not only are there too many foreigners, they're not white enough. U.S. law changed the kind of people allowed to come here.


ANN COULTER: The 1965 Act did that through a series of complicated rules to bring in people from cultures as different from ours as possible and as poor as possible.

GJELTEN: Conservative commentator Ann Coulter with a view echoed in comments by Donald Trump and others. In this interview on C-SPAN's "Book TV," Coulter suggests that liberals engineered the post-'65 immigration influx in order to attract new voters for the Democratic Party. Immigrants do tend to vote Democratic, but the rules that brought them here are largely the product of a scheme devised originally to keep different cultures out - one example of how a law approved 50 years ago today has had effects no one saw coming. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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