Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy

Larry Holzwarth - July 19, 2018

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
President Johnson signing the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, part of his Great Society reforms. LBJ Library

The Hart-Celler Act of 1965

The Hart-Celler Act was part of the legislation drive which was promoted by President Lyndon Johnson in the reforms which he referred to as the Great Society. The Act was proposed by Congressman Emanuel Celler of New York, and backed in the US Senate by Edward Kennedy. Hart-Celler altered the quota system of immigration which had existed since 1921 by abolishing the National Origins Formula, which Celler argued was discriminatory against the people of Eastern and Southern Europe. Quotas were not eliminated, but the manner in which they were calculated was changed, and a limit of 170,000 visas per annum was established.

Hart-Celler was an amendment to the McCarran-Walter Act, and though it eliminated the National Origins Formula, it retained limits per country. The act established labor certification as a requirement, meaning that for a given skill the Secretary of Labor needed to certify that it was needed in American industry. This did not necessarily mean that there needed to be shortages of the skill in question, only that the possessor of such a skill would be able to apply it in the American workforce. Priority was given to relatives of people already residing in the United States, either as permanent residents or former immigrants who had achieved citizenship.

During the years prior to the enactment of the Hart-Celler Act, the overwhelming majority of immigrants coming to the United States came from Europe. In the 1950s alone nearly 70% of immigrants were either from Europe or Canada. From 1970 to 1990 the demographic changed, with just over 47% of immigrants coming to the United States arriving from Latin America, and just over 35% coming from Asia. The increase of immigration was driven by the demands of American industry and agriculture for foreign workers, and that in turn led to the increase in illegal immigration by workers who found US employers willing to flout the law.

In 1986 the Immigration Reform and Control Act was signed by President Ronald Reagan. The act required that all employers in the United States ascertain that all workers they hire are in the United States legally, and established penalties for employers which knowingly hired illegal immigrants. It also provided for seasonal immigrant workers, most of whom entered the country to help harvest crops, and provided an amnesty program for illegal immigrants who had been in the United States since 1982, if they had remained there continuously since entry. The Act was controversial at the time of its passing and has remained so ever since.

The waves of immigration which the United States underwent throughout its first two centuries brought with them many of the core features of its culture today. The celebrations of Christmas came from Northern Europe, Cinco de Mayo from Mexico, St. Patrick’s Day from the Irish. Most of what Americans consider native cuisine, the hot dog, pizza, macaroni and cheese, even ice cream, were brought to the United States by immigrants. Even the American symbol of the log cabin was brought to the New World by Nordic settlers from Sweden and Germany. Immigration has long been the source of debate among the American people and politicians, and there is no sign of the debate ending in the foreseeable future.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Real History of American Immigration”, by Joshua Zeitz, Politico Magazine, August 6, 2017

“History of U. S. Immigration Law”, by The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), online

“How U. S. immigration has changed”, by Dan Keating and Reuben Fischer-Baum, The Washington Post. January 12, 2018

“The ugly history of American immigration”, by Rebekkah Rubin, The Week, September 21, 2017

“The Oxford Handbook of American Immigration and Ethnicity”, ed. by Ronald H. Bayor, 2015

“Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882”, by Roger Daniels, 2005

“Open doors, slamming gates: The tumultuous politics of U. S. immigration policy”, by Marc Fisher, The Washington Post, January 28, 2017

“The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act)”, by the Office of the Historian, U. S. Department of State, online

“How Eisenhower solved Illegal border crossings from Mexico”, by John Dillin, The Christian Science Monitor, July 6, 2006

“The Development of U. S. Immigration Policy since 1965”, by Charles B. Keely, Journal of International Affairs, Winter, 1979