1965: The Hart-Celler Act

This year, we are taking a look at the history of the Texas-Mexico border and what events shaped it to where it is today. Join us for this series as we explore the key moments that built the foundation for the relationship between Texas and Mexico.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, dramatically changed the way immigration quotas were allocated in the United States. Before the Hart-Celler Act, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 had established a discriminatory system that allocated immigration quotas on the basis of race and national origin. The system provided a quota of visas equal to two percent of the total number of citizens in the U.S. of each nationality as calculated in 1890, while completely barring immigration from Asia and placing no quota on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. The signing of the Civil Rights Act and accompanying civil rights movement motivated the swift replacement of the discriminatory Johnson-Reed system in the form of the Hart-Celler Act.

Signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Hart-Celler Act maintained consistent per-country limits on immigration in lieu of national origins quotas, while also creating preference visa categories that focused on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with citizens or U.S. residents. The preference visa categories under the Act included family reunification, employment, and refugee status. Under the Hart-Celler Act, the U.S. permitted widespread immigration from Africa and Asia for the first time in its history. Because the law had no provisions for potential immigrants employed in sectors such as domestic service, agriculture, and construction, many of these individuals were left with no lawful means to immigrate to the United States. This law also brought numerical limits to immigration from Mexico and Latin America for the first time. The implementation of numerical restrictions on immigration from the Western Hemisphere left the entire hemisphere with less than half of the slots used by Mexicans alone in the preceding year. With Congress voting to end the Bracero program just months before the passage of the Hart-Celler act, opportunities for Mexicans to enter the U.S. for employment were greatly diminished. However, with the continuing demand for low-cost labor in the U.S., economic migration from Mexico has continued at high levels even under the Hart-Celler Act and the ending of the Bracero program.

Despite President Johnson’s statement that the Hart-Celler Act was “not a revolutionary bill”, the Act has played an integral role in shaping the multicultural makeup of today’s America as well as creating significant problems and burdens, especially for immigrants in the Western Hemisphere and in Mexico. The Hart-Celler Act is still in effect today and continues to shape modern immigration to the U.S.

To learn more about the History of the Texas-Mexico border, go here.

This post was written by Katherine Rossmiller ’21. She is a Meadows Scholar studying Public Policy and Music with minors in American Politics and Statistical Science. She is on the Pre-Law track and is also involved with SMU’s Symphony Orchestra and the Belle Tones.

Information cited from the following sources:

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