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Hart-Celler and a watershed in American immigration

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the congressional passage of the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was the culmination of a trend toward reforming immigrant admissions and naturalization policies that had gathered momentum in the early years of the Cold War era. The Hart-Celler Act removed discriminatory restrictions and naturalization exclusions based on national or racial origins. Lawmakers established an admissions policy with annual ceilings that encouraged family reunion and occupational preferences. These legal changes and provisions applied to all the countries of the world.

During the successive presidential administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Johnson, liberal political movements were poised to remove controls that had favored immigrants from northern and western Europe, and restricted immigration from other parts of Europe and excluded immigration from Asia. Opinion makers had revivified the democratic ideology of America’s national destiny as an immigration country and an asylum for refugees. Concurrently, the federal government established new laws to end racial discrimination in voting and employment that enlarged the possibilities for the assimilation of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. The late 1950s and early 1960s formed a pivot point when public policy moved to increase incentives for immigration and integration in American society.

As the years passed, the Hart-Celler Act was perceived as the cause of a new diversity in America. It was seen as making the United States into a country of global immigration. A more historically accurate view would take the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 as a facilitator rather than a creator of a multicultural and globalizing immigrant America. The Hart-Celler Act was an accelerator of transformative changes that had long been evolving in the interaction of immigrants who came from the far reaches of the Atlantic and Pacific basins.

Japanese restaurant, Monday morning, December 8, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. San Francisco, California. Photo by John Collier. FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress.
Japanese restaurant, Monday morning, December 8, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. San Francisco, California. Photo by John Collier. FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress.

Even in times of restrictive and discriminatory policies against immigration from countries of the Asia Pacific, the United States far exceeded other destination countries in the western hemisphere such as Canada, Peru, Cuba, Trinidad, Mexico, and Brazil in its intake of immigrants both from countries in the Pacific region and Europe. Migrants from Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa, connected with each other in the United States, particularly in the far west, to shape new human networks and cultural patterns. The matrix of connections created interchanges of social, cultural, and human capital bridging the Atlantic and Pacific regions in which diversity became a platform for collaboration, expertise, and leadership.

As the Pacific coast was settled and integrated with the core institutions of American national life, it became the creative hearth of a new international and bicoastal culture. Movies, music, telecommunications, material culture, and foods from Asian countries took their place next to those produced in the United States, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. The Pacific coast became a laboratory for bringing together diverse groups and their cultures that had an encounter with each other for the first time.

By expanding immigration from the Pacific basin, the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 provided enormous new opportunities for interlinking Pacific and Atlantic regions. Asian immigrant entrepreneurs, students, and professionals galvanized the development of Silicon Valley, the aero-space industry, international finance, education, business enterprise, and the health care industry. Attracted by the Pacific coast’s economic dynamism and westward transcontinental shift of population, migrant networks from Atlantic and Pacific societies facilitated a bicoastal nexus for innovative state and corporate developmentalism. Diverse human factors were brought into creative tension and productive interchange notwithstanding discriminatory treatment, particularly on the Pacific periphery—California, the Hawaiian Islands, and nearby areas—where social and cultural threads from multiple countries were densely drawn together into a new transcultural fabric.

The United States has been a country of diverse immigration from its inception — yet another reason to tear down these artificial boundaries of Atlantic-European vs Pacific-Asian immigrations, or pre- and post-1965 patterns of immigration when we think of the Hart-Celler Act.

Image credit: Western Addition neighborhood, San Francisco, California. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith (2012). The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Recent Comments

  1. Jack

    Biggest mistake America ever made.

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