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Washington | Thursday, October 1, 2015

How Did the 1965 Immigration Act Change America?

Moderated by Gregory Rodriguez, Publisher, Zócalo Public Square

From 1924 to 1965, immigration to the U.S. was dictated by origins quotas that favored newcomers from Western Europe and discriminated against Asians—who were banned from immigrating—and Southern and Eastern Europeans. By the 1960s, as the civil rights movement took hold, America’s immigration policy was largely understood to be unjust, and was blasted by President John F. Kennedy as “nearly intolerable.” So the nation was ready for change by the time Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. For decades, the bill was celebrated for abolishing the quota system, helping families reunite, and diversifying America by making it easier for previously excluded people—particularly from Asia—to immigrate to the U.S. But 50 years later, it’s clear the Immigration Act had unintended consequences. Most notably, it set a cap on the number of Latin American immigrants that was lower than the number of Mexicans who had been arriving legally in the U.S.—thus creating a decades-long battle over illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border. What is the true legacy of the 1965 Immigration Act, both for good and ill? How has it shaped our discussions and debates over immigration today? Historian Mae Ngai of Columbia University, Matt Garcia, director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, Erika Lee, director of the University of Minnesota Immigration History Research Center, and CUNY Graduate Center sociologist Richard Alba discuss how this historic legislation shaped the face of the nation.