Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The law triggered long-lasting demographic shifts that persist today.
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed a piece of legislation that overhauled the country’s immigration system, setting in motion demographic shifts that have made America much more diverse.
A new Pew Research Center report finds that the 1965 Immigration Act was largely responsible for bringing 59 million immigrants into the American population between then and 2015 (below, left). These new arrivals, their kids, and their grandkids make up over half of the total U.S. population growth during this period. Looking ahead to 2065, immigrants that came to America as a result of this law, plus their families, will account for almost 90 percent of the nation’s population increase (below, right) from now to then:
The 1965 law was born to revise the exclusionary immigration policy that had existed before. The Immigration Act of 1924 clamped down on immigration from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Western and Southern Europe. Here’s Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University, commenting on the explicit racism of the policy, via NPR:
"It declared that Northern Europeans are a superior subspecies of the white race. The Nordics were superior to the Alpines, who in turn were superior to the Mediterraneans, and all of them were superior to the Jews and the Asians."
The 1965 law re-wrote that policy, and since then America’s white population share has declined from 84 percent at the time to 62 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population share grew from 4 to 18 percent, and Asians rose from less than 1 percent to 6 percent (below, left). If President Johnson hadn’t signed the 1965 law, America would be 75 percent white today, Pew estimates (below, right).
While the 1965 immigration policy opened up doors to immigrants from countries that were previously restricted, it closed doors, to an extent, for workers from Mexico and Latin America who had previously been allowed in, writes Douglas Massey, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, in The Washington Post. Still, the long-lasting impact of the 1965 immigration law is undeniable, and much larger than what lawmakers had expected at the time. Here’s Klineberg, again via NPR:
“Congress was saying in its debates, 'We need to open the door for some more British doctors, some more German engineers,’” Klineberg says. “It never occurred to anyone, literally, that there were going to be African doctors, Indian engineers, Chinese computer programmers who'd be able, for the first time in the 20th century, to immigrate to America.”
Today the U.S. is home to one-fifth of the world’s immigrant population, which is more than any other country in the world.