In honor of Open Borders Day, let’s talk about the last major U.S. immigration liberalization, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  Critics of immigration blame it for bringing America’s foreign-born share back near its historic peak.  They’re right on their own terms: Seemingly innocuous rules for family unification spawned a snowball of chain migration.  Pew Research lays out the long-run pattern:


It’s hard to believe most Americans in 1965 wanted anything like what happened.  So how did this major liberalization come to pass?  In A Nation of Nations (highly recommended) Tom Gjelten provides a topsy-turvy play-by-play.

It all started with the Johnson administration’s desire to abandon the explicit racism of the old national origins quotas.  Wouldn’t that lead to lots of non-white migration?  No:

Johnson administration officials, however, didn’t ask members to set aside their stereotypes and prejudice regarding non-European immigrants.  Apparently thinking that such an argument would fall flat, the officials chose to stick with their insistence that changing the criteria for admitting immigrants would have no consequential effect on the ethnic makeup of the immigrant population.  In the coming years, when their official predictions were shown to have been wildly inaccurate, a debate arose over whether Johnson administration officials were misleading in their presentations to Congress or simply mistaken.

Political cynics like myself naturally assume chicanery.  But the plot thickens when nativist Congressman Michael Feighan enters the stage.

By the summer of 1965, the battle to eliminate the national origin quota system was largely won.  In the House, Feighan had agreed to support most of the administration’s reform proposal, though he insisted on two key changes.  First, he wanted a ceiling imposed on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, a provision the Johnson administration opposed as inconsistent with a “good neighbor policy.”  Second, Feighan wanted to rearrange the “preferences” under which immigrant visas would be distributed.  The administration’s bill had given priority to visa applicants considered “advantageous” to the nation because of their skills and training, with up to half the available slots reserved for applicants meeting that criterion.  Relatives of U.S. citizens and legal residents were next in line under the administrative plan.  Feighan wanted to reverse those priorities, with the unification of divided families becoming the top priority.  His amended version of the administrative proposal set aside up to three categories for married and unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens…  The largest number of visa slots – 24 percent of the total available – would be set aside for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, a far more generous allocation for that group than the administration bill provided.

What was Feighan up to?

Feighan had for years strongly supported the national origin quota system as a way to preserve the racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. population.  Recognizing that the existing quota system was doomed, he concluded that the same demographic result could be achieved by making family unification the paramount goal of U.S. immigration policy.  If priority were given to visa applicants whose relatives were already in the United States, he figured, the existing profile of the U.S. population would be unchanged. [emphasis added]

Feighan’s arguments won over many fellow nativists.  The case of the American Legion:

Two Legion representatives, in an article full of praise for Feighan’s legislative work, said that by redesigning the administration’s immigration reform proposal to emphasize family reunification, he “devised a naturally operating national-origins system.”  Giving priority to immediate relatives, the Legion representatives argued, would actually bring about the result the quotas were meant to produce.  “Nobody is quite so apt to be of the same national origins of our present citizens as are members of their immediate families,” the Legion representatives wrote, “and the great bulk of immigrants henceforth will not merely hail from the same parent countries as our present citizens, but will be their closer relatives… Asiatics, having far fewer immediate family members now in the United States than Southern Europe, will automatically arrive in far fewer numbers.”

As expected, there was some anti-racist pushback:

[Feighan’s] argument was so persuasive that some of the fiercest critics of the old national origins approach were dismayed that its hated nationality bias could resurface under the proposed reform.  The Japanese American Citizen League pointed out that Asians constituted just one half of one percent of the total U.S. population, so the number of Asians who would qualify for immigrant visas for family unification would be small.  “Thus,” the league complained, “it would seem that, although the immigration bill eliminated race as a matter of principle, in actual operation immigration will still be controlled by the now discredited national origins system…”

But pro-immigration politicians decided to accept Feighan’s offer.  Perhaps they knew it was a Trojan horse, but Gjelten reports no such sign:

Supporters of immigration reform, including Kennedy and Celler, accepted Feighan’s reversal of the preference categories, lowering the number of slots reserved for high-skill applicants and increasing the set-aside for family unification purposes…


Perhaps the most important factor explaining [the 1965 Act’s] relatively easy passage was that both the immigration reformers and the immigration restrictionists managed to convince themselves and each other that the legislation would not change the immigration picture all that much.  In future years, the advocates of tighter immigration controls would look back at the passage of the 1965 Act as a major cause of the immigration wave that followed, with millions of Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, and Latin Americans moving to the United States.  The administration officials who insisted that no such inflow would occur were proved wrong, but they were not alone.  Ironically, it was Congressman Michael Feighan, a long-time supporter of the national origins quotas and a close ally of the immigration restrictionists, who was most responsible for opening the United States to more non-European foreigners… Fifty years later, about two thirds of all immigrants entering the United States legally were family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, and the 1965 law was even known in some quarters as “the brothers and sisters act.”

But if all this is true, why has the 1965 Act remained the law of the land decades after its rationale proved false?  Institutional and psychological status quo bias

Institutionally, a simple majority is not enough to overturn the 1965 Act.  If the House or the Senate or the President opposes reform, reform doesn’t happen.  Psychologically, the fact that the 1965 Act is the law of the line inclines fence-straddlers to support it – especially given the mental effort required to grasp the causal chain from family unification to chain migration to non-European migration. 

The 1965 Act wasn’t just a glorious accidental liberalization; it was a glorious lasting accidental liberalization.  As an advocate of open borders, I strive to win hearts and minds.  But if history is any guide, maneuvering for another glorious legislative accident could well be the more fruitful approach.