In reality (and with the benefit of hindsight), the bill signed in 1965 marked a dramatic break with past immigration policy, and would have an immediate and lasting impact. In place of the national-origins quota system, the act provided for preferences to be made according to categories, such as relatives of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, those with skills deemed useful to the United States or refugees of violence or unrest. Though it abolished quotas per se, the system did place caps on per-country and total immigration, as well as caps on each category. As in the past, family reunification was a major goal, and the new immigration policy would increasingly allow entire families to uproot themselves from other countries and reestablish their lives in the U.S.
In the first five years after the bill’s passage, immigration to the U.S. from Asian countries–especially those fleeing war-torn Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia)–would more than quadruple. (Under past immigration policies, Asian immigrants had been effectively barred from entry.) Other Cold War-era conflicts during the 1960s and 1970s saw millions of people fleeing poverty or the hardships of communist regimes in Cuba, Eastern Europe and elsewhere to seek their fortune on American shores. All told, in the three decades following passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, more than 18 million legal immigrants entered the United States, more than three times the number admitted over the preceding 30 years.
By the end of the 20th century, the policies put into effect by the Immigration Act of 1965 had greatly changed the face of the American population. Whereas in the 1950s, more than half of all immigrants were Europeans and just 6 percent were Asians, by the 1990s only 16 percent were Europeans and 31 percent were of Asian descent, while the percentages of Latino and African immigrants had also jumped significantly. Between 1965 and 2000, the highest number of immigrants (4.3 million) to the U.S. came from Mexico, in addition to some 1.4 million from the Philippines. Korea, the Dominican Republic, India, Cuba and Vietnam were also leading sources of immigrants, each sending between 700,000 and 800,000 over this period.