What the authors of our modern immigration policy believed that it would do

“The Hard Truth About Immigration” (The Atlantic; paywalled, but included with Apple News subscriptions) has some interesting quotes from the people who authored our current immigration policy. This is not about the asylum policy that has effectively opened the border to anyone who asks, but the official immigration policy that has resulted in most of the population growth in recent decades. From Pew:

The author of the article is a New York Times journalist, i.e., from a team of cheerleaders for open borders. So perhaps we should be skeptical of any claims regarding the benefits of low-skill immigration to natives (see this 2016 Harvard analysis for how elites benefit and the working class gets destroyed financially), but I think that the quotes are likely accurate.

What did the best and brightest of the 1960s predict?

“This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said as he put his signature on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, at the base of the Statue of Liberty. “It does not affect the lives of millions.” All that the bill would do, he explained, was repair the flawed criteria for deciding who could enter the country. “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.”

Edward Kennedy, the 33-year-old senator who had shepherded the bill through the Senate, went even further in promising that its effects would be modest. Some opponents argued that the bill would lead to a large increase in immigration, but those claims were false, Kennedy said. They were “highly emotional, irrational, and with little foundation in fact,” he announced in a Senate hearing, and “out of line with the obligations of responsible citizenship.” Emanuel Celler, the bill’s champion in the House, made the same promises. “Do we appreciably increase our population, as it were, by the passage of this bill?” Celler said. “The answer is emphatically no.”

How wrong were they?

Johnson, Kennedy, Celler and the new law’s other advocates turned out to be entirely wrong about this. The 1965 bill sparked a decades-long immigration wave. As a percentage of the United States population, this modern wave has been similar in size to the immigration wave of the late 1800s and early 1900s. In terms of the sheer number of people moving to a single country, the modern American immigration wave may be the largest in history. The year Johnson signed the immigration bill, 297,000 immigrants legally entered the United States. Two years later, the number reached 362,000. It continued rising in subsequent decades, and by 1989 exceeded 1 million.

How did they get it so wrong? The miracle of chain migration, which Donald Trump tried to end:

The most consequential nonquota entries proved to be family members, including extended family. The law declared that immigrants who were coming to join relatives already in the United States would not count toward the quota. That loophole was not wholly new. But it had not mattered much before 1965, because the overall system was so restrictive. The new law opened the doors to the entire world without solving the nonquota problem.

Didn’t anyone foresee how the U.S. would be transformed?

The critics’ predictions—that annual immigration might soon triple, as one conservative congressman forecast, and eventually surpass 1 million, as another anticipated—ended up being more accurate. The advocates of the 1965 law also incorrectly promised that any increase in immigration would come from white-collar professionals filling specific job shortages. Willard Wirtz, Johnson’s labor secretary, went so far as to tell Congress that the bill offered “complete protection” against increased labor competition. In truth, many arrivals have been blue-collar workers, admitted as extended family, seeking a broad range of jobs.

The Harvard analysis that I cited above was considered hate speech in 2016 when Hillary was running for the Presidency that she so richly deserved. The author of this Atlantic piece presents the same conclusions, with the implication that we’re only figuring this out right now:

The decades when the American masses enjoyed their fastest income gains—in the middle of the 20th century—were also the decades when immigration was near historic lows. The 1965 law ended this era and caused a sharp rise in the number of immigrants entering the workforce. Shortly afterward, incomes for poor and working-class Americans began to stagnate. The 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s were a time of low immigration and rapidly rising mass living standards. The period since the ’70s has been neither.

The post-1965 immigration wave has had both benefits and costs. On the plus side, it has probably accelerated economic growth, mostly by expanding the labor force. With a larger population, the United States has been able to produce more goods and services. Immigration also appears to have benefited many high-earning, native-born professionals. The costs of immigration for these workers have been fairly low because they face relatively little competition from immigrant workers. Few of the highly educated immigrants who come to the U.S. are lawyers or doctors, partly because some professions have created barriers that restrict entry. In medicine, foreign doctors are required to complete a multiyear residency program in the United States, regardless of their prior experience. Professionals who have enough political influence to shape labor-market rules, like doctors, understand that a larger labor pool can reduce incomes.

(When I lived in Maskachusetts and a cardiologist would talk about how the borders should be open, how no human was illegal, how much Trump needed to be hated, etc., I would ask “Should a cardiologist from Switzerland or the UK be allowed to come here and practice?” The answer was inevitably “No.”)

After acknowledging that low-skill immigration makes the working class poor, just as the Harvard nerds said in 2016, the author explains that “racism” is why working class voters oppose open borders:

Racism, of course, is part of this story. In both the United States and Europe, right-wing politicians like Trump have tried to raise fears of immigrants by using xenophobic stereotypes and lies. This racism can be anti-Latino, anti-Asian, anti-Black, or anti-Muslim, depending on the time and place. The tactic has proved distressingly effective at winning working-class voters.


  • “Effects of Immigration on African-American Employment and Incarceration” (NBER, 2007): For white men, an immigration boost of 10 percent caused their employment rate to fall just 0.7 percentage points; for black men, it fell 2.4 percentage points. … For white men, a 10 percent rise in immigration appeared to cause a 0.1 percentage point increase in the incarceration rate for white men. But for black men, it meant a nearly 1 percentage-point rise. [This study is not cited in the Atlantic article by the NYT writer!]
  • “A price tag to reject migrants? It’s not the only fight threatening a reform package” (Politico EU): Negotiators are haggling over a per-migrant fee — somewhere between €10,000 and €22,000, according to numerous people involved — to charge a country if it declines to take in asylum seekers. [We are informed that low-skill migrants make a country richer, which means each migrant should be valuable. Instead, the price within Europe is negative and countries will have to pay to unload a migrant.]

8 thoughts on “What the authors of our modern immigration policy believed that it would do

  1. Seems obvious that if one wants to preserve American values large scale immigration from cultures very different from ours is not a good idea, that diversity does not produce strength, but rather social disorder. An interesting experiment is Sweden where I think it is about 20% of the population is not native born, mostly from the middle east and north Africa. Some Swedish cities like Malmo, third largest city in Sweden, are already off limits to traditional Swedes. You would think that most Americans would find frightening the photos of large mobs in European cities demanding first extermination of the Jews and after that extermination of western culture. We will see how this issue plays out in the 2024 election.

    • jdc: What are “American values”? Our immigration policy is based on admitting people who say that they’re at risk of being killed in their country of birth. So they don’t necessarily have anything in common with others who are admitted, or the native-born, other than a desire to continue living. By design, they’re here in the U.S. because no other country would take them, not because there is some “American value” that they subscribe to. Therefore, there is no reason to expect a Venezuelan asylum-seeker to have anything in common, other than seeking asylum, with a Somali asylum-seeker or a asylum-seeker from India (see https://www.wsj.com/world/india/indians-are-entering-the-u-s-illegally-in-record-numbers-2cf19e38 : “Roughly 42,000 migrants from India have crossed the southern border illegally during the fiscal year starting last October through September, according to data compiled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.” (how would they know the precise number if they don’t have an effective border wall/fence?)).

      Are you saying that the non-immigrants have some shared values? What are they?

  2. Thanks, Phil, I was unaware of where some of these laws came from. I guess there is little/no chance to do new laws and/regulations, which seems so wrong.

  3. The Hart-Cellar Act (the immigration act reform) was pushed by Congressman Cellar starting 40 years before, when the 1924 Johnson Act clamped down on immigration. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/emanuel-celler .

    Given the task of turning the passed law into administrative law and bureacratic procedures was Norbert Schlei, assistant attorney general in Kennedy and Johnson administrations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_p13nzD00Q speaking about the act in 1966. There used to be a video interview of Norbert Schlei but it is no longer on youtube.

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