Fifty Year Later: A Brief History of the Immigration Act of 1965

Today’s post comes from Rebecca Brenner, an intern in the History Office at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Photograph of President Lyndon B. Johnson Signing the Immigration Act, 10/3/1965. (National Archives Identifier 2803428)
Photograph of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration Act, 10/3/1965. (National Archives Identifier 2803428)

Fifty years ago on October 3, 1965, at the base of the Statue of Liberty, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965 into law.

The act was an important milestone in American immigration history. It was a significant improvement from the National Origins Act of 1924, which barred Asian immigrants, limited Latin American immigrants, and established rigid immigration quotas for European countries.

These quotas, established in an era of post–World War I isolationism and xenophobia, lasted from 1924 through 1965:

  • Armenia: 124
  • Australia: 121
  • Austria: 785
  • Belgium: 512
  • Czechoslovakia: 3,073
  • Estonia: 124
  • France: 3,954
  • Germany: 51,227
  • Great Britain and Northern Ireland: 34,007
  • Hungary: 473
  • Irish Free State: 28,567
  • Italy: 3,845
  • Latvia: 142
  • Lithuania: 344
  • Netherlands: 1,648
  • Norway: 6,453
  • Poland: 5,962
  • Russia: 2,248
  • Sweden: 9,561
  • Switzerland: 2,081
  • Yugoslavia: 671

Aliens needed to apply for spots on the quota in their country of birth, regardless of where they and their family lived. Some quota waiting lists were a dozen years long, while others were not filled.

The Immigration Act of 1965 abolished this quota system and eliminated the formally racial character of immigration to the United States.

The act aimed for immigration law to distinguish between hemispheres of origin, instead of discriminating on the basis of ethnicity or race.

It also prioritized keeping families together, and put a preference on skilled workers.

According to records in the Center for Legislative Archives, the net effect of the final bill was to admit 320,000 people to the United States each year. This number included 120,000 from the Western hemisphere and 170,000 from the rest of the world, as well as 30,000 immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.

On August 25, 1965, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill with a vote of 318-95.

On September 22, the U.S. Senate passed it with a vote of 76-18.

According to the Congressional Quarterly in October 1965, a combination of factors enabled its passage:

  • The Democratic majority in Congress supported the Johnson administration, which viewed quotas as discriminatory.
  • The general public was not as interested in the act as it was in civil rights or health care, and as a result, provided less opposition.
  • Special interest groups were willing to compromise with each other.

The National Archives holds many records related to the history of immigration. The Records of Rights exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, DC, includes a compelling section on American immigration.

And on September 17, Constitution Day, the annual naturalization ceremony for new American citizens will take place in front of the Constitution at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

2 thoughts on “Fifty Year Later: A Brief History of the Immigration Act of 1965

  1. I came to America as a stateless 3 year old on January 13, 1966, born to parents that were refugees taken in by France. They waited 10 years to join family here in the USA. I suppose this act helped us gain entry. My siblings were just commenting that January 13, 2017, we will celebrate with great joy, as Americans, our 50th anniversary arriving in our adopted homeland. We have been fortunate to grow up as Americans and have the opportunities we never would have had under the iron curtain of Albania. We love and cherish America sometimes it seems like even more so than many naturally born citizens.

    1. How right you are Farije, in supposing that your appreciation of America surpasses that of so many citizens whose families have lived here for generation after generation. The cultural and personal hardships that your family has suffered, and is a part of your oral history, has most certainly allowed you to be more cognizant of all the glories that Americans have only to open their eyes to see.

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