Hart-Celler Act Reforms U.S. Immigration Law Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Immigration reform enacted in 1965 abolished national-origins quotas to determine whether potential immigrants could enter the United States. Instead, immigrants were to be admitted on the basis of familial relationships and skills.

Summary of Event

The civil rights activism and social unrest of the 1960’s, charged as they were by new racial sensitivities, undercut the restrictionism that still characterized American immigration policies and legislation. These attitudinal changes were strengthened by the return of prosperity during the moderate liberal administration of President John F. Kennedy as well as by a substantial influx of liberal Democrats into Congress. A revitalization of the economy likewise disposed organized labor, which then exerted a powerful political influence over legislators, toward more generous immigration laws. Thus, for a few years, until America’s imbroglio in Vietnam preempted national attention, there was a renewed focus on reforming domestic affairs and on reevaluating the image that Americans wanted to project abroad. Hart-Celler Act (1965)[Hart Celler Act] Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments (1965) Immigration;United States [kw]Celler Act Reforms U.S. Immigration Law, Hart- (Oct. 3, 1965) [kw]Hart-Celler Act Reforms U.S. Immigration Law (Oct. 3, 1965)[Hart Celler Act Reforms U.S. Immigration Law] [kw]Act Reforms U.S. Immigration Law, Hart-Celler (Oct. 3, 1965) [kw]U.S. Immigration Law, Hart-Celler Act Reforms (Oct. 3, 1965) [kw]Immigration Law, Hart-Celler Act Reforms U.S. (Oct. 3, 1965) Hart-Celler Act (1965)[Hart Celler Act] Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments (1965) Immigration;United States [g]North America;Oct. 3, 1965: Hart-Celler Act Reforms U.S. Immigration Law[08590] [g]United States;Oct. 3, 1965: Hart-Celler Act Reforms U.S. Immigration Law[08590] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Oct. 3, 1965: Hart-Celler Act Reforms U.S. Immigration Law[08590] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 3, 1965: Hart-Celler Act Reforms U.S. Immigration Law[08590] Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;immigration policy Kennedy, Ted Celler, Emanuel Hart, Philip Feighan, Michael Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;immigration policy Dirksen, Everett Ervin, Sam

Although two years of his administration passed without presidential initiatives to alter immigration policy, Kennedy had indicated publicly that he was an advocate of reform. In 1958, while a U.S. senator, Kennedy had written a booklet for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, later published as A Nation of Immigrants Nation of Immigrants, A (Kennedy) (1959). In it, he extolled the contributions of immigrants to American life and expounded the need for fairer and more generous immigration laws. To this end, the president’s youngest brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, tried to gauge the opposition to abolishing the main feature of extant laws, namely the quota system based on national origins. After meeting with representatives from several patriotic and church organizations, among them the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the National Association of Evangelicals, Senator Kennedy concluded that no significant opposition existed.

Accordingly, President Kennedy proposed an immigration reform bill to Congress in July, 1963. Shepherded by Michigan senator Philip Hart and by New York representative Emanuel Celler, the Hart-Celler Bill was stalled by the president’s assassination. The mandate for change, however, continued into the administration of Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who by 1964 was firmly in power on the strength of his landslide election victory. A liberal Congress was already inundated with bills championing immigration reform when President Johnson’s own proposal was submitted on January 13, 1965.

The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments (Hart-Celler Act), which President Johnson signed into law on October 3, 1965, were by his own reckoning far from revolutionary. Opposition to the bill during its passage through Congress, particularly from North Carolina senator Samuel Ervin and from Illinois senator Everett Dirksen, required compromises, particularly in regard to Western Hemisphere immigration. Similarly, Ohio representative Michael Feighan, who had battled against the original reform in 1963-1964, opposed many of its features until appointed chairman of the Joint Committee on Immigration and Nationality Policy.

The Hart-Celler Act sought first to preserve family units and reunite separated families. It was likewise designed to accept highly skilled foreigners as immigrants, as well as to join with the international community in easing problems caused by political upheavals overseas; that is, to open American doors to victims of communist aggression and other refugees Refugees;U.S. immigration policy . Provisions were also included to accept victims of natural disasters. Established restrictions were retained excluding persons with mental or physical handicaps, along with criminals, those with records of dependency, and those who posed threats to national security.

The act abolished previous immigration quotas that were based on people’s national origins. Instead, the criterion of national origins, which had long favored Western European and especially Northern European immigration, was replaced by a preference system under which the allocation of immigration visas within foreign states was determined. For example, first preference was given to the unmarried children of U.S. citizens. Second preference was given to spouses and unmarried sons and daughters of permanent resident aliens in the United States. Exceptional ability was the main criterion for the third preference, the objective being to select professionals, scientists, and artists, thereby increasing what observers had long described as a “brain drain” to the United States. Fourth preference included married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and fifth preference was accorded to the siblings of U.S. citizens. Sixth preference was designated for skilled and unskilled workers whom the Labor Department considered to be in demand in the American economy. Seventh preference was reserved for refugees.

President Johnson regarded the act as one of the most significant enacted by the Eighty-first Congress, noting that the harsh injustice of the national-origins quota system that had endured for four decades had been repudiated and that the barriers of prejudice and privilege had been removed. Although making it clear that the days of unlimited immigration were past, Johnson stressed that those who could contribute most to the United States would be the first to be permitted entry.


Like preceding immigration acts, the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 achieved some of their broad objectives. The law further opened what President Johnson had called the “Golden Door.” It permitted entrance of 270,000 immigrants annually, with no more than 20,000 to be selected from any single country. It therefore directly produced both a significant increase in the sheer number of immigrants entering the country legally and a dramatic change in the sources of immigration. Alterations in the preference system, however, yielded unforeseen consequences. The preceding Immigration Act of 1952 had also featured a preference system, but the emphasis had been on selecting prospective entrants on the basis of their skills. The 1965 act, however, shifted preferences from skills to family reunification. That meant that within the annual quota of 270,000 admissions, the spouses, children, siblings, and parents of U.S. citizens and of permanent resident aliens preempted almost three-fourths of the available openings.

As a result of earlier immigration, millions of Latin Americans who were already American citizens acted vigorously to bring in family members. Similarly, because old quota restrictions on Asian immigration—the so-called Asian-Pacific Triangle provision—were removed by the 1965 act, Asian Americans began immediately to bring family members to the United States. Well-educated Asians, in particular, also availed themselves of the act’s third preference provision covering professionals, scientists, and artists of “exceptional ability.” As immigration experts soon noted, within a decade of the act’s passage, more than seventy thousand medical doctors had emigrated to the United States from Asia alone, notably from the Philippines and South Korea. Soon there were more Filipino physicians in the country than there were native-born black doctors. These men and women then could take advantage of the act’s main thrust toward family reunification by bringing in their remaining family members. This phenomenon became known as chain migration.

Between 1965 and 1975, total immigration increased by 60 percent. The pattern of immigration differed dramatically from the predominant ones of earlier years. Asian immigration increased by 663 percent. Within that regional average, the Philippines’ increment was 1,200 percent, South Korea’s 1,300 percent, Pakistan’s 1,600 percent, Thailand’s 1,700 percent, South Vietnam’s 1,900 percent, and India’s 3,000 percent. Some European countries showed significant increases in the numbers of their citizens who emigrated to the United States; for example, Greek immigration rose by 162 percent and Portuguese by 382 percent. The traditional sources of European immigration to America, however, showed an overall decline of 38 percent. Immigration from the United Kingdom, for example, plummeted. Austria’s emigration to the United States fell by 76 percent, and Norway’s by 86 percent.

Supporters of the 1965 act, particularly its liberal backers, had regarded it as still somewhat restrictive after a number of compromises had been written into it. Its proponents had not expected immigration to increase significantly. The numbers discussed while the act was being debated were on the order of 50,000 to 60,000 immigrants per year. Congress, moreover, had imposed what were believed to be tight controls on immigrant workers. The secretary of labor predicted that the number of immigrant workers entering the workforce would be inconsequential. In addition, the ceiling of 120,000 immigrants placed on the Western Hemisphere, it was predicted, would actually decrease immigration from Mexico.

In effect, however, the 1965 act left Western Hemisphere countries with no preference system and without any limit for individual countries. As observers were quick to point out, this resulted in the United States having essentially two immigration policies for two hemispheres. Although the Western Hemisphere “policy” disadvantaged many waiting immigrants from Latin America, it proved immensely advantageous to Mexican immigrants. In 1969, instead of the 20,000 Mexicans who might have emigrated had the quota applicable elsewhere applied, 32,000 Mexican immigrants entered the United States. Five years later, this figure had risen to 45,000 annually. The figures for both 1969 and 1974 were actually larger when immediate family members were included.

By 1975, the flow of legal immigration had exceeded even liberal expectations. The number of refugees alone, to whom the act’s seventh preference category applied, proved to be a flood. Between 1960 and 1980, 800,000 refugees entered the United States from Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba alone. Meanwhile, political and economic pressures were building a large potential immigration from Haiti, which had not been provided for in the 1965 act. Of greater numerical importance were the 200,000 Vietnamese refugees whose exodus to America began in 1975.

Consequently, by the mid-1970’s measures for amendment of the act were surfacing in Congress. At that time, most legal immigrants were entering from Mexico, Cuba, the Philippines, South Korea, and China/Taiwan. Thousands of Asian, Caribbean, and Soviet Russian (Jewish) refugees, in the meantime, were being allowed in over their quotas by the president’s use of executive parole powers. Large and unknown numbers of other refugees waited in the wings. In addition, political and social anxieties had begun festering over the estimated one-half million to one million undocumented aliens who had entered the United States. There had been dissatisfaction with the act’s provisions for the Western Hemisphere from the outset, refugee problems were mounting, and illegal aliens appeared to be flooding into the country, so Congress enjoyed a mandate sufficient for legislative revision by 1976.

What amendments to the 1965 act sought was a unified worldwide immigration system after the Western Hemisphere situation had been resolved. To that end, Congress crafted revisions that modified the preference system to include Western Hemisphere migration, with an annual limit of 20,000 persons for each nation. A temporary Indochinese Refugee Resettlement Program was adopted to begin dealing with the contingent of Southeast Asians while congressional committees began long-term studies for the further reevaluation of American immigration policy and fresh ways, within the ambit of sensible foreign policy, to deal with growing waves of illegal immigrants. With the ascension of the conservative administration of President Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald , coupled with the deepest economic recession that the country had experienced since 1946, it was clear that public sentiments favored more exhaustive alterations in the country’s approach to immigration problems.

Retrospectively, experts agreed that the act of 1965 had been a turning point in abolishing discriminatory policies based on race and national origins. Acknowledging this, critics nevertheless noted that immigration policy had been subverted to satisfy the narrow private interests of legal residents and their alien relatives. In effect, critics believed, Congress had left these people with authority to select the nation’s future citizens and workers. Others charged that economic assumptions underlying the act produced a wave of immigrants who supplanted the economic opportunities of many established citizens. Hart-Celler Act (1965)[Hart Celler Act] Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments (1965) Immigration;United States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borjas, George J. Friends or Strangers. New York: Basic Books, 1990. An objective scholarly assessment of the economic impact of immigrants on the American economy. Part 2 provides an excellent overview. Clearly written.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bouvier, Leon F. Peaceful Invasions. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1992. The author is a professional demographer with lengthy public service. Emphasis is on the effects of immigration. Has a proimmigrant viewpoint, but Bouvier is concerned about the destabilizing effects of mass immigration based on politically expedient policy making.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Briggs, Vernon M., Jr. Mass Immigration and the National Interest. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1992. Written by a Cornell labor economist and former member of the National Employment Council. Critical of the thoughtlessness of post-1965 policy, which disregarded characteristics of the human capital of people allowed in.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LeMay, Michael C. From Open Door to Dutch Door. New York: Praeger, 1987. The author is a political scientist who presents a clear, balanced analysis of U.S. immigration policies since 1820. Places changes in policy in the context of depressions, social unrest, and national anxieties. Sees each policy shift producing dramatic changes in the composition of immigration. Chapter 5 cites the 1965 act’s specific provisions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ngai, Mae M. “The Unlovely Residue of Outworn Prejudices: The Hart-Celler Act and the Politics of Immigration Reform, 1945-1965.” In Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal, edited by Michael Kazin and Joseph A. McCartin. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Essay reading the act in relation to both its authors’ notions and the nation’s notions of what constitutes American identity and American values. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reimers, David M. Still the Golden Door. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Clearly written by an American social historian who emphasizes the character of immigration from developing nations and its effects on the United States. The book’s concentration is on the period after World War II. Chapter 3 deals with the 1965 act.

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