When most people think of the great civil right achievements of the 1960s, two famous laws come to mind: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But there was a third great civil rights law that is far too often forgotten—and could not be more relevant to today’s presidential debate.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 just turned 50 on October 3. The law brought a sweeping overhaul to the U.S. immigration system, and changed the racial and ethnic complexion of America.
The core principles of the Immigration Act of 1965 were consistent with the other two civil rights laws—racial justice and equal treatment under the law. The 1965 Act was a watershed moment because, for the first time in U.S. history, the nation abandoned a national origins-based system of immigration. From its creation, that system had privileged immigrants based on racist perceptions of the superiority of Western Europeans over those from the developing world.
Instead, the 1965 Act instituted a national origins-neutral selection system by which each nation in the Eastern hemisphere was given a 20,000 per country limit. The logic shifted from picking people based on their race or national origin to admitting them based on a race and nationality neutral system that emphasized the new dual priorities of family reunification and U.S. labor market needs. In addition, Western hemisphere nations were subject to an overall numerical cap for the first time and were moved to the same 20,000 per country limit by 1977.
The framers of the Act, including LBJ himself, did not anticipate that it would literally change the makeup of the nation, but it did—dramatically.
Here’s what that change looked like: In the 1950s and early ‘60s, more than 50 percent of all legal immigrants to the U.S. were white ethnic Europeans. Only 6 percent of legal immigrants came from Asia and another 6 percent came from Mexico. After the passage of the 1965 Act, half the legal immigrants are from Latin America, and one quarter are from Asia.
The 1965 Act marked a huge step towards a more just nation, but, like the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, it was far from perfect. In particular, the annual 20,000 immigrants per country limit led to significant flows of undocumented immigrants, many from Mexico and Central America.
When the demand for legal visas exceeded the supply, migrants entered surreptitiously or overstayed their temporary visas. In 1986, to address the issue, President Ronald Reagan signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Control Act.
Reagan’s law aimed to close the back door to undocumented immigration and to bring into the sunlight the undocumented population that was already in the U.S. It accomplished these two goals by implementing for the first time an employer sanctions system that penalized U.S. employers who were also breaking immigration law, and instituting the I-9 system, which was supposed to ascertain which workers are legally authorized to work in the U.S.
At the same time, in recognition of the fact that an undocumented population living in the shadows was open to exploitation and abuse, the law gave 2.7 million people legal status, providing them with amnesty and a path to citizenship.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Control Act was hailed as tough, visionary, and compassionate. Its legacy is more mixed. The employer sanction provisions proved ineffective in curbing undocumented immigration given the proliferation of fraudulent documents and under-enforcement of immigration laws in the interior of the U.S.
Nevertheless, like in the 1965 Act, the 1986 law offered a multi-pronged approach that matched the multifaceted nature of the immigration phenomenon. It sought to humanely treat the undocumented population who resided in the U.S., while simultaneously reducing employers’ incentives to hire undocumented workers. It did so with the politically pragmatic approach of combining enforcement and benefits components into the same bill, thereby goring immigration advocates’, unions’, and business’ sacred oxen and ensuring passage through a coalition of strange bedfellows.
Donald Trump and much of the GOP primary field’s immigration reform proposals are unconstructive reactions, not improvements, to the 1965 Act—and they mark a repudiation of Reagan’s balanced approach. Building a wall, repealing birthright citizenship, mass deportation, tracking immigrants like Fedex packages, and admonishing immigrants to learn English are not policy solutions. They are reactions to the cultural and demographic changes that immigration has brought to the U.S.
Let’s be clear: despite the homage GOP candidates constantly pay to their beloved Regan, none of them—with the possible exception of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both of whom have previously supported comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship—has proposed anything approaching the seriousness of Reagan’s reform reform. So instead of real solutions to a complex problem, what we have on the table are a series of piecemeal reforms designed to appeal to the party base but that are not really politically or practically viable. It is true that neither the 1965 law nor the 1986 law permanently solved the nation’s immigration ills. But at least they were sober and even bold attempts to address the nettlesome subject.
Anna O. Law holds the Herbert Kurz Chair in Constitutional Rights at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. She is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.
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