Nearly every new American president of the modern era has viewed the nation’s
immigration policies as deeply flawed. Yet few of these modern executives
have been willing to make immigration reform—one of the most dangerous
issues in American politics—central to their agenda. Even fewer
have had a measure of success doing so. Even the most dramatic and successful
of all—Lyndon Johnson’s landmark 1965 reform—came with
high political costs and uneven results. Yet, Johnson’s battle for
reform underscores the way immigration policy can be a potent political
tool and offers a model for future presidents.
Today, as in the past, efforts to significantly revise U.S. immigration
laws and policies have divided even the most unified party coalitions.
Campaigns for sweeping reform in this arena have regularly followed a
tortured path of false starts, prolonged negotiation, and frustrating
stalemate. And when non-incremental reforms have passed, rival goals and
interests have complicated enactment. The result has been legislation
that is typically unpopular among ordinary citizens and stakeholder groups
alike, and which often places new and sometimes competing policy demands
on the government. These dynamics—intraparty conflicts, elusive
problem definition, difficult compromises, and unpopular outcomes—have
typically frustrated most American presidents.
Lyndon Johnson was well aware of these challenges as a first-year president,
yet he forged ahead knowing the fight for sweeping immigration reform
would be far more taxing and unpredictable than nearly all of the legislative
proposals on his immense agenda. He ultimately expended far more political
energy on this issue than anyone on his team anticipated, with bedeviling
twists and turns on the path to major reform.
The Johnson administration learned that major reform often hinges upon
the formation of “strange bedfellow” alliances that are unstable
and demand painful concessions. But they also believed immigrants and
refugees served their larger visions for the nation and refused to let
nativists use rhetoric against those groups to codify their ethnic, racial,
and religious animus. Johnson recognized that failing to spearhead an
immigration overhaul would significantly undercut his civil-rights, social-justice,
and geopolitical goals. He upended xenophobic policies that had prevailed
for half of a century, and his remarkable legislative achievement has
had dramatic unforeseen consequences over time, including an unprecedented
change in the country’s demographic landscape.
For all of its potential to reshape U.S social, economic, and political
life, immigration reform has made most modern presidents decidedly uneasy.
Franklin Roosevelt assiduously avoided clashes with immigration restrictionists
in Congress during the 1930s, a period when draconian national-origins
quotas barred entry for most newcomers and nativist demagogues blamed
unemployment on past arrivals. Decades later, presidents such as Ronald
Reagan and Bill Clinton pursued a cautious, reactive strategy toward immigration
reform, one in which they responded opportunistically to congressional
initiative on the issue. Some presidents have failed spectacularly, including
Jimmy Carter, who pursued employer sanctions-amnesty legislation, and
George W. Bush, who hoped for comprehensive immigration reform.
Most recently, the incoming Obama administration shelved immigration reform
when it became clear that nearly every Republican member of Congress (and
some Democrats) would derail legislation. Obama eventually followed precedents
set by Truman and Eisenhower, taking unilateral executive action to provide
deportation relief and economic benefits to particular undocumented immigrants,
most notably young people who entered the United States as children (and,
later, their parents, a move currently blocked in the courts).
Reticence on this issue, let alone avoidance, will be all but impossible
for the next president. Whoever moves into the White House in 2017 will
be under enormous pressure to act decisively on immigrant policy. Executive
action may offer Band-Aid measures, but it’s likely to satisfy few,
being seen at worst as a crassly partisan, constitutionally suspect maneuver.
Efforts at major immigration reform will be both daunting and nearly inescapable.
Immigrants should be asked, “What can you do for our country?”
Not “in what country were you born?”
Amid this bleak outlook, Johnson’s story offers some hope. No other
president was more closely identified with liberal immigration reform
than John F. Kennedy. But when Johnson came into office, he initially
made it clear to White House advisers that he wanted nothing to do with
the issue, even though he had pledged to fulfill the agenda of his slain
For years, Johnson was whipsawed by immigration policy in the Senate. Democrats
were deeply divided between southern conservatives opposed to any loosening
of restrictions and northern liberals committed to dismantling racist
national-origins quotas dating back to the 1920s; these policies reserved
about 70 percent of visas for immigrants from just three countries: Great
Britain, Ireland, and Germany.
While Kennedy described immigration reform as “the most urgent and
fundamental” item on his New Frontier agenda, he got nowhere on
plans to alter U.S. immigration law due to potent opposition from conservative
Democrats like Senator James Eastland of Mississippi and Representative
Michael Feighan of Ohio, who controlled the immigration subcommittees
of both houses. These lawmakers stood atop a bipartisan coalition that
favored immigration restriction in the name of national security, job
protection, and ethnic and racial hierarchy.
Numerous White House aides argued that the persistence of these national-origins
quotas contradicted Johnson’s goals at home and abroad. They were
inconsistent with his civil-rights agenda “to eliminate from this
Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based on race
or color,” and they provided, as Senator Philip Hart of Michigan
put it, “grist for the mills of Moscow and Peiping.” Eventually,
Johnson became a late convert to the cause.
Johnson’s first State of the Union Address in 1964 buoyed the hopes
of immigration reformers. In this speech, he outlined a civil-rights agenda
that championed equal access to public facilities, eligibility for federal
benefits, opportunities to vote, and “good public schools”
for all children. “We must also lift by legislation the bars of
discrimination against those who seek entry into our country,” he
added. Legislators soon introduced an administration-backed bill that
would increase annual immigration to 165,000 and create a preference system
allocating 50 percent of visas to applicants with special occupational
skills or education that benefited national economic interests. Remaining
visas would be distributed to refugees and those with close family ties
to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
One week after his address, Johnson held a press conference at the White
House that included members of the House and Senate immigration subcommittees
as well as a diverse set of reform advocates. As the restriction-minded
Eastland and Feighan looked on uneasily, Johnson urged Congress to make
U.S. immigration law more egalitarian. He reminded lawmakers that every
president since Truman believed existing immigration policies hurt the
nation in its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Johnson invoked
the language of Kennedy’s inaugural address: Immigrants should be
asked, “‘What can you do for our country?’” he
said. “We ought to never ask,” he added, “‘in
what country were you born?’”
Leading congressional sponsors of the administration’s bill, including
Senator Hart and Representatives Emanuel Celler of New York and Peter
Rodino of New Jersey, praised the measure. When they finished their statements,
Johnson caught Eastland off guard by asking him to address the assembled
crowd. A surprised Eastland told the gathering he was prepared to look
into the matter “very carefully and very expeditiously.” After
a series of tense Oval Office meetings with Johnson in 1964, Eastland
stunned Washington observers by agreeing to temporarily relinquish control
of his subcommittee to none other than the freshman senator from Massachusetts,
Edward Kennedy. Johnson’s unusual influence over Eastland removed
a formidable impediment to the Hart-Celler bill, but major legislative
As chair of the House immigration subcommittee, Feighan made headlines
in 1963 for charging that the CIA was infiltrated by Soviet spies and
the actor Richard Burton should be banned from entering the country for
having an “immoral” affair with Elizabeth Taylor. One year
later, Feighan mobilized restrictionists in both parties to block Johnson’s
immigration bill. He proposed a rival bill that promised to preserve preferences
for northern and western Europeans, exclude nearly all Asians and Africans,
favor immigrants with family ties, and maintain exclusions of Communists,
socialists, and homosexual people. This maneuver hobbled all reform efforts
until after the 1964 election.
After Johnson re-won the White House, his team renewed its push for immigration
reform in 1965. Feighan and his allies held two months of hearings, peppering
administration officials with questions about a new merit-based preference
system and its potential impact on the number and diversity of newcomers.
“How about giving the welfare of the American people first priority
for a change?” he asked proponents of progressive reform.
Frustrated by Feighan’s roadblocks, Johnson led House Democrats to
expand the immigration subcommittee with Johnson loyalists as crucial
swing votes. Privately, Feighan told anti-immigrant lobbyists he enjoyed
enough bipartisan backing to seriously limit radical policy change. Yet
he understood that Johnson and reformers now had sufficient political
momentum to bypass him, so he entered tough negotiations with the White House.
Eventually, Feighan and his allies agreed to dismantle the national-origins
quota system and the so-called Asiatic Barred Zone—which excluded
all Asians except the Japanese and Filipinos—if Johnson got rid
of the administration’s emphasis on immigrant merit and skills.
Feighan was convinced (incorrectly, as it turned out) that reserving most
visas for immigrants with family ties to U.S. citizens and legal permanent
residents would decidedly favor European applicants, thus maintaining
the nation’s ethnic and racial makeup. The new preference system
in the administration’s bill established four categories for family
reunification, which were to receive nearly three-quarters of total annual
visas. Spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens over 21 were
granted admission without visa limits. The revised bill left roughly a
quarter of annual visas for economic-based admissions and refugee relief.
Along with the legal preference system, the “non-quota status”
of Mexican immigrants in particular and Latin Americans in general was
a prominent concern for restrictionists in both houses of Congress. Secretary
of State Dean Rusk and other foreign-policy advisers denounced the proposal
of a cap on Western Hemisphere immigration, arguing that such a step would
damage relations with Central and South American countries. The administration’s
stand on Western Hemisphere immigration came under withering attack in
the Senate, however. Southern Democrats, led by Sam Ervin Jr. of North
Carolina, threatened to stall action in the Senate immigration subcommittee
unless concessions were made. Facing a major logjam, Johnson and pro-immigration
lawmakers compromised with Ervin and his restriction-minded colleagues
on an annual ceiling for Western Hemisphere immigration. As Johnson’s
congressional liaison, Lawrence O’Brien, explained: “Listen,
we’re not going to walk away from this because we didn’t get
a whole loaf. We’ll take half a loaf or three-quarters of a loaf.”
This sweeping immigration reform is one of the crowning—and most
controversial—achievements of the Johnson years.
Even by the standards of Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society juggernaut,
the legislation that eventually passed—the Immigration and Nationality
Act of 1965, known as INA—was monumental. Although few historians
believe the law’s champions anticipated just how profoundly it would
change the U.S. demographic landscape, Johnson seemed to recognize that
its passage was especially significant—enough so that he oversaw
the staging of an elaborate signing ceremony at the base of the Statue
True to form, White House staffers were given strict instructions by the
president to physically block political rivals like New York Governor
Nelson Rockefeller from the cameras assembled on the dais at Liberty Island.
Hinting at the INA’s potential impact, Johnson predicted that the
new law would “strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways.” Fifty
years later, this sweeping immigration reform is being commemorated alongside
the Voting Rights Act as one of the crowning—and most controversial—achievements
of the hard-driving Johnson years.
Lyndon Johnson stands apart from his successors for shepherding landmark
immigration reform through Congress. In many respects, he enjoyed exceptional
advantages in championing the legislation, including its close association
with his martyred predecessor and broader civil-rights reform; the near
consensus of foreign-policy experts that reform served national geopolitical
interests; a strong economy; an electoral landslide in 1964; and, concomitantly,
huge partisan gains in both houses of Congress.
But the fact that even these favorable circumstances did not shield the
Johnson administration from an arduous legislative struggle underscores
the enormous political difficulty of immigration reform. The law ended
a draconian national-origins quota system that was explicitly rooted in
eugenicist notions of Northern and Western European superiority. Yet it
took 20 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany for Congress to remove
these barriers in American immigration law, showing how effectively Cold
War nativists knitted together national-security and race-based fears.
It’s equally revealing that, in the end, Johnson’s success
depended significantly upon painful compromises with exactly these sorts
The INA defies simple characterization precisely because of this fact;
it is an intricate statute that has created outcomes that were somewhat
unexpected when the legislation was passed. This struggle is often hidden
by the headlines, which are not wrong, but often rosy in hindsight. The
INA marked a monumental watershed in U.S. immigration policy, but this
kind of moment will not be easy to reproduce.
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