History Column



By Sarah Becker

“Forebears created this Nation,” President Lyndon Johnson said on January 20, 1965. “In each generation, with toil and tears, we have to earn our heritage again…They came here—the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened—to find a place where a man could be his own man. They made a covenant with this land,” an economic decision.

America is primarily a nation of European immigrants. We are, Johnson explained in 1965, “one nation and one people.” An immigrant American is one “who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced,” French Consul to New York and later immigrant J. Hector St. Jean explained in 1782. “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.…”

Immigrate describes the move relative to the destination. Emigrate describes the move relative to the point of departure.   In 1840 The Legislature of Jamaica “encouraged the emigration of free colored persons to that Island.” In 1858 Chinese emigrants “bought up abandoned claims in California.” Alternatively, in 1866, Virginia initiated “a practical plan for the introduction of sober and industrious immigrants, from England and Scotland, into this State.”

The Census of 1860 “showed the aggregate population of the United States amounted to 31,041,977, an increase of 8,449,921 as compared with 1850.” The increase in free men was 38%, “a material increase due to immigration from abroad.” Slaves accounted for 12.9% of the total population.

Post-Civil War, Virginians chose either the restoration of labor or ruin. “It is…delusional to hope that immigrants…will…come into Virginia and remain merely as laborers,” Virginia’s Land and Immigration Company wrote in 1868. “But as actual settlers—as landed proprietors, they will only come, and come by the thousands….” The Company offered to sell land “to actual settlers, [especially British and German], on such terms as will induce them to come…”

“We have not one-quarter the population in Virginia that we ought to have,” Governor Walker said in 1872. “I go heart and soul for keeping our young men at home, but we want others to help us build up the Commonwealth. The importance of immigration is generally conceded…We want no pauper immigrants, nor others to break down Virginia. We can keep that class out. What we want is honest, industrious, thrifty citizens—who will come and improve and build upon our lands. These we can easily obtain, from the North and from Europe.”

On October 3rd President Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965. “This bill says simply that…those wishing to emigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here,” Johnson declared. “For over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system.”

“Under that system the ability of new immigrants to come to America depended on the country of their birth,” Johnson continued. “Only three countries were allowed to supply 70 per cent of all immigrants. Families were kept apart because a husband or wife or child had been born in the wrong place. Men of needed skill and talent were denied entrance because they came from southern or eastern Europe or from one of the developing continents.”

“This system violated the basic principle of our democracy—the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man,” Johnson concluded. “Those who come will come because of what they are—not because of the land from which they sprung.” Fifty years later, the Immigration Act of 1965 is hardly mentioned when recounting the high points of the Kennedy brothers’1960s liberalism.

“It transformed a nation 85% white in 1965 into one that’s one-third minority today, and on track for a nonwhite majority by 2042,” The Boston Globe reported on 2008. Yet President Johnson maintained “This bill is not a revolutionary bill.”

Before the Act, immigration visas were apportioned based on the demographic breakdown that existed at the time of the 1920 Census. “That is, there were few if any limits on immigrants from Western and Northern Europe, but strict quotas on those from elsewhere.” Passage of the 1952, ideologically based McCarren-Walter Act reconfirmed the quota system.

In 1920 the aggregated total of American inhabitants was 106,021,537 persons; 179,323,175 persons in 1960 and 321,664,150 persons in 2015. In the last 50 years “far more relatives of citizens asked to be admitted than the State Department had expected.” Reform waits.

The Immigration Act of 1965 took “full effect” in 1968. It “established a limit of 170,000 on annual immigration from countries outside the Western hemisphere and put a ceiling of 120,000 on the number who could enter from within the Hemisphere.” The stated order of preference: “immediate relatives of those who were already U.S. citizens or alien residents; professionals or others with special talents or education, and refugees who had fled a Communist dominated country [like Cuba], or the Middle East.” Skilled or unskilled laborers, of the type who established America’s pre-eminence during the industrial revolution, were among the last to be considered.

“The accent on reuniting families…has drastically altered the immigration mix,” The Washington Post reported in 1966, “so much so, in fact, that an American-Irish Immigration Committee was formed recently in New York City to protest the unaccustomed difficulty that the Irish were having getting in.” More and more immigrants are of color.

In 1990 Congress approved broad immigration changes, including a large increase in the total number of family-related immigrants. By 1995-1997 the educational level of new immigrants was lower, immigration applications for Supplemental Security Income much higher. In 2013, the U.S. Census American Community Survey estimated that 29.6% of Alexandria’s population was foreign-born. This compares to 13% nationally, 3.2% locally in 1960.

Today’s means test relates more to family reunification, than job skills. In 1998 Alan Reynolds, the Hudson Institute’s Director of Economic Research, argued “U.S. immigration policy serves primarily to increase the number of U.S. residents who lack even a high-school degree.” Approximately 20% of Alexandria’s 2009-2013 foreign-born residents 25 years or older lacked a high school education. Is America “recruiting workers for jobs that exist only at the lowest wages?”

The Immigration Act of 1965 “changed the racial narrative in America.” In 2008 Presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke of cultural diversity, of heritage and “a new generation of Americans.” In fact, the 2010 Census found 75% of Americans identified as White, either White alone or in combination with one or more other races.

“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment,” George Washington told the lately arrived Members of the New York Volunteer Association of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1783.

President Lincoln’s Cottage, a NTHP property located in the city of Washington, opens a new exhibit, American by Belief, on October 16th in the Special Exhibits Gallery of the Robert H. Smith Library. For more information, visit http://www.lincolncottage.org.


Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com


Taglines: Immigration Act of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, immigration, emigration, family reunification, Virginia

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