Affecting the Lives of Millions
The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965

Clifford Baldowski cartoon

1965. From the Clifford Baldowski Editorial Cartoon Collection. Created for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and licensed to the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Immigration and Nationality Services of Act of 1965 was a turning point in United States policy regarding immigration. While changing previous legislation that functioned on a rigid quota system, the Act of 1965 gave preference to refugees and families, removed quotas from countries in the Western Hemisphere, and based entry to the United States on levels of skill. In forty years since, the foreign-born population of the United States has tripled in number, now prompting new legislative debate.

This bill we sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not restructure the shape of our daily lives.

--Lyndon Baines Johnson at the signing of the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Services Act, 1965

In order to stem immigrant population growth in the early twentieth century, the Immigration Act of 1924 based admission to the United States on a system that allowed entrance to 2 percent of any nationality presently living in the United States based upon the 1890 census. Senator Emanuel Celler of New York was one of six dissenters in 1924 and devoted his career to repealing the legislation. His goal was finally realized in the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, co-sponsored with Phillip Hart of Michigan. The bill allowed refugees and persons with an immediate family member already living in the United States to receive priority status and then placed limits on how many people could be accepted from other countries. These limits were based on the percentage of residents from a country already living in the United States as well as the level of skilled labor of the applicants.


A Harris poll in March of 1965 asked 1,110 respondents the following question: President Johnson has proposed that the immigration laws of this country be changed to allow more people into the U.S. as immigrants. From what you know or have heard, do you favor or oppose letting more people come to the U.S. as immigrants?


From Georgia, Senator Richard B. Russell and Congressmen Maston O’Neal and John Pilcher received hundreds of letters and telegrams requesting that they use their power to defeat the new legislation and defend the old. People wanted the population explosion to happen elsewhere. They felt that their jobs would be at risk. Because of the Cold War, there was much fear that if more people were allowed to enter the country, the possibility of a Communist invasion would increase. Civic clubs adopted resolutions denouncing the bill. The few groups that asked for the men’s support of the bill included Jewish civic groups and synagogues as well as groups that focused on international heritage, such as the Savannah-Italian Club.

Richard B. Russell, Jr. Collection, Richard B. Russell Library for Research and Studies, University of Georgia

Richard B. Russell, Jr. Collection, Richard B. Russell Library for Research and Studies, University of Georgia

How was the Immigration and Nationality Services Act passed?

It had little support and much opposition but the wave of Civil Rights legislation and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy were major factors. Immigration was one of President Kennedy’s major platforms. He adopted the issue while a senator from Massachusetts in the late 1950s and produced a pamphlet entitled A Nation of Immigrants. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 condemned discrimination on the basis of race, creed, religion, sex, and national origin. Therefore, those who wanted immigrants to the United States to be only from developed countries could be accused of discrimination against persons from third world countries regarding entry into the United States.

The Act was passed in the Senate in a 76 to 18 vote with members of the Southern Caucus acting as the primary dissenters.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy told the House Committee that he expected about 5,000 people to emigrate from Asia in the first year and did not foresee a great increase. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach revealed that there was “not much pressure” for people to come to the United States from Central and South America. Labeled the “brothers and sisters act” in the 1970s, the legislation provided means for people to enter the U.S. singly on a work or study visa and request that they be joined by family, who, in turn, aided the entrance of more family members.

As the population in the United States swells, immigration reform has become an issue in politics and the public forum. In March of 2005, the Current Population Survey (CPS) collected by the Census Bureau listed all foreign born people (defined as those not living in the United States at birth) in the United States at 35.2 million. This includes both documented and undocumented immigrants. During the immigration wave of the early twentieth century the peak in 1910 was 13.5 million. Although certain ethnic groups have grown in population since 1965, they still remain under-represented politically and economically in the United States.