President Johnson and the 1965 Immigration Action

President Johnson signing the 1965 immigration act. Senator Ted Kennedy is standing over the President’s left shoulder and is looking to his right. His brother, Robert Kennedy, is to his left with his hand covering part of his face.

On October 3, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act. The bill ended national quotas restricting immigration that were signed into law in 1924. Before his assassination, President Kennedy had described the United States as a nation of immigrants, in fact, he was working on a book by that title at the time of his death. The book was released in 1964. Johnson took up immigration reform as part of his agenda, working with Senator Ted Kennedy, JFK’s younger brother, to build support for a bill. Below is an excerpt of the text that Johnson delivered on Liberty Island when he signed the bill.

This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power.

Yet it is still one of the most important acts of this Congress and of this administration.

For it does repair a very deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice. It corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American Nation.

Speaker McCormack and Congressman Celler almost 40 years ago first pointed that out in their maiden speeches in the Congress. And this measure that we will sign today will really make us truer to ourselves both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways.

I have come here to thank personally each Member of the Congress who labored so long and so valiantly to make this occasion come true today, and to make this bill a reality. I cannot mention all their names, for it would take much too long, but my gratitude–and that of this Nation–belongs to the 89th Congress.

We are indebted, too, to the vision of the late beloved President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and to the support given to this measure by the then Attorney General and now Senator, Robert F. Kennedy.

In the final days of consideration, this bill had no more able champion than the present Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, who, with New York’s own “Manny” Celler, and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Congressman Feighan of Ohio, and Senator Mansfield and Senator Dirksen constituting the leadership of the Senate, and Senator Javits, helped to guide this bill to passage, along with the help of the Members sitting in front of me today.

This bill says simply that from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here.

This is a simple test, and it is a fair test. Those who can contribute most to this country–to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit–will be the first that are admitted to this land.

The fairness of this standard is so self-evident that we may well wonder that it has not always been applied. Yet the fact is that for over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and has been distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system.

Under that system the ability of new immigrants to come to America depended upon the country of their birth. Only 3 countries were allowed to supply 70 percent of all the immigrants.

Families were kept apart because a husband or a wife or a child had been born in the wrong place.

Men of needed skill and talent were denied entrance because they came from southern or eastern Europe or from one of the developing continents.

This system violated the basic principle of American democracy–the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man.

It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country.

Today, with my signature, this system is abolished.

We can now believe that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.

Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide.

The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources–because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.

And from this experience, almost unique in the history of nations, has come America’s attitude toward the rest of the world. We, because of what we are, feel safer and stronger in a world as varied as the people who make it up–a world where no country rules another and all countries can deal with the basic problems of human dignity and deal with those problems in their own way.

Now, under the monument which has welcomed so many to our shores, the American Nation returns to the finest of its traditions today.

The days of unlimited immigration are past.

But those who do come will come because of what they are, and not because of the land from which they sprung.

When the earliest settlers poured into a wild continent there was no one to ask them where they came from. The only question was: Were they sturdy enough to make the journey, were they strong enough to clear the land, were they enduring enough to make a home for freedom, and were they brave enough to die for liberty if it became necessary to do so?

Follow this link for a full text of the speech. To listen to Johnson deliver the speech, start the video below.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. How does Johnson describe his motivation for signing the legislation? What is the argument he is making?
  2. What impact does he suggest the bill will have?
  3. Research the impact of immigration in the United States since the bill was passed. What has changed? What about the immigration story has remained consistent from earlier periods of immigration? Compare what you find to the picture Johnson presented in his speech.
  4. Examine the image above. The location of the signing was chosen carefully to send a message. Also, look at the people who are surrounding the President. What do you notice?