Debates over immigration policy have assumed center stage in Washington and have even contributed to a government shutdown. President Donald Trump and his conservative allies want to put an end to “chain migration” that he says allows “truly evil” people into the United States. Unfortunately, Trump has tainted his proposals with racist outbursts that suggest his policy is designed to keep out more than terrorists and gang members. Democrats counter that immigrants have come to America as family units since the founding of the Republic. Both sides have hunkered down, convinced of their own righteousness and certain that history is on their side.

Few, however, know that the emphasis on family unification was the product of a legislative compromise between President Lyndon Johnson and an obscure Ohio congressman, Michael Feighan. It resulted from political expediency, not careful analysis, and it now stands as a prime example of how immigration policy today is the product of unintended consequences.

Since the 1920s, the national origins clause had served as the centerpiece of U.S. immigration policy. Under the system, the government allocated visas to nations in ratios determined by the number of persons in the United States in 1920. Since most of the people living in the U.S. at that time had roots in Northern and Western Europe, the clause effectively curtailed new waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Europe consumed 98 percent of the quota, leaving only 2 percent for the rest of the world. Three countries—Ireland, Great Britain, and Germany—accounted for nearly 70 percent of the total. The quota did not apply to spouses or minor children of U.S. citizens or to residents of the Western Hemisphere, who could emigrate without restriction.

An immigrant family on Ellis Island looking across New York Harbor at the Statue of Liberty, 1930s. (Credit: FPG/Getty Images)
An immigrant family on Ellis Island looking across New York Harbor at the Statue of Liberty, 1930s. (Credit: FPG/Getty Images)

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy, a proud descendant of Irish immigrants, submitted a new immigration plan to Congress. The centerpiece of his legislation was a phaseout of the national origins provision over a five-year period. In its place, Kennedy proposed that immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere apply on a “first-come, first-served” basis within specific preference categories. Half of the visas would be allotted based on skill or talent; 30 percent were reserved for the unmarried sons and daughters over the age of 21 of U.S. citizens, and 20 percent for spouses and unmarried children of immigrants admitted for permanent residence.

After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson took control of pushing the legislation through Congress. If JFK’s reforms were to have any chance of passing, they would need the support of Feighan, who served as head of the powerful House Immigration subcommittee.

At first Feighan was hard to read. Despite having close ties to conservative and patriotic groups, he had not been outspoken on immigration issues and he represented a district in Ohio with a high concentration of immigrants. In fact, during his 26 years in the House, the Democrat had left few footprints—which left open the possibility that he could be swayed toward the White House position. That hope proved illusory. In their first meeting, White House officials described Feighan as “very cool” to their proposal.

The 1964 elections changed the political calculus for Feighan. The veteran lawmaker received the scare of his political life when Ronald M. Mottl, a Democratic rival of Czech descent, made immigration the major focus of his primary challenge against the 26-year Capitol Hill veteran. “I do not understand,” he said, how Feighan, “representing a cosmopolitan district with a large population whose national origins are declared ‘second class’ by the present law, could oppose the administration proposal.” Feighan squeaked out a narrow victory, but his opponent promised a rematch if the congressman continued to stall on immigration reform.

President Johnson personally urging key Congressmen to revamp U.S. immigration laws. Michael A. Feighan appears here left of Johnson. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
President Johnson personally urging key Congressmen to revamp U.S. immigration laws. Michael A. Feighan appears here left of Johnson. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

President Johnson used Feighan’s political vulnerability to his advantage. He showered him with attention, invited him to travel on Air Force One and assigned a staff member to respond to his concerns. At the same time, he made clear that disloyalty would carry a heavy price. After his landslide victory in 1964, the President packed the subcommittee with administration loyalists and leaked to the press that he was looking for a candidate to run against Feighan in 1966.

As Congress convened in January 1965, Feighan faced a difficult political situation: The primary challenge suggested that his political survival required him to support some form of immigration reform, but he also wanted to appease his conservative followers. On June 1, 1965 Feighan submitted his substitute immigration bill. The congressman insisted on reversing the administration’s preference structure and instead making the top priority “uniting families of United States citizens and permanent resident aliens.” In his proposal only two preference categories were reserved for those with professions, skills, occupations or special talents needed in the United States.

With little debate or discussion, the White House accepted his new preference system, thus transforming an immigration-reform bill into a family-unification measure. In making its case for reform to undecided lawmakers and an uncertain public, the administration emphasized that the new preference system “leaves the present authorized level of immigration substantially unchanged.” One notable change, pushed by Republicans: Immigrants from Western Hemisphere countries no longer enjoyed an exemption from quotas.

Edward M. Kennedy, who spearheaded the drive for passage in the Senate, told his colleagues that “our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually,” he said. “Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same.” The administration insisted its proposal would not substantially alter existing patterns of immigration. Again, Kennedy reassured the Senate that “the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.” The measure, he concluded, “will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most overpopulated and economically deprived nations of Africa and Asia.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the new U.S. immigration bill into law on Liberty Island, October 3, 1965. (Credit: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)
President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the new U.S. immigration bill into law on Liberty Island, October 3, 1965. (Credit: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)

In July, standing in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965. “The bill that we sign today is not a revolutionary bill,” he said. Most agreed with the assessment in the Congressional Quarterly, which opined that the law “foreclosed any long-term upward trend in the numbers of immigrants.”

It was clearly Congress’s intent both to maintain immigration levels and to continue to draw immigrants from Europe. How wrong they were! The legislation led to a dramatic spike in the number of new immigrants coming to the United States, as well as a revolution in immigration patterns. Before 1965, most newcomers hailed from Western Europe; afterward, most migrants came from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Politicians can debate whether the results of the law have been beneficial to America, but there is no doubt that American immigration policy today is based on a massive blunder.

How could the forecast have been so wrong? Neither Congress nor the White House had carefully analyzed the potential impact of the family-preference system. Feighan, with no vested interest in immigration policy, had proposed family unification to save his political career. The administration, which viewed abolishing national origins as a moral issue, was willing to compromise on specifics to achieve its ultimate objective.

In the political brokering between Capitol Hill and the White House, no one stopped to consider that a policy based on blood could produce different results than one based on talent. Immigration policy is always unpredictable, dependent on many variables—population increase, natural disasters, international economics, changing expectations—which are beyond the control of policy makers. Legislators added to the uncertainty by adopting a major policy change without calculating potential consequences.

Legislators never considered how “family unification” could produce a chain of migration that would confound efforts to control immigration. Congress and the administration also accepted Feighan’s provisions, believing they would preserve existing immigration patterns and discourage migrants from Latin America and Asia. In fact, they conspired to do just the opposite. Despite their large numbers in the U.S., many Northern European immigrants lacked the close family ties needed to benefit from the new system. Many came over as single men, applied for jobs, married and raised American families. However, immigrants from Southern Europe, and especially from Asia, emigrated as families and were therefore better positioned to take advantage of the family-unification provisions.

“If history teaches us anything,” observed the great Brown University historian Gordon Wood, “it teaches us humility.” If the two parties are to break this logjam, they can begin by learning from the past, appreciating how changing circumstances have altered conditions and, most of all, how unintended consequences have shaped past efforts to reform immigration policy.

Steven M. Gillon, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, is the Scholar-in-Residence at HISTORY. He has authored numerous books on American history, including the recent Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism, (Basic, 2018)

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