When the U.S. Congress passed—and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law—the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the move was largely seen as symbolic.

"The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants,” lead supporter Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy (D-Mass.) told the Senate during debate. “It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.”

That sentiment was echoed by Johnson, who, upon signing the act on October 3, 1965, said the bill would not be revolutionary: “It does not affect the lives of millions … It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power.”

But the act—also known as the Hart-Celler Act after its sponsors, Sen. Philip Hart (D-Mich.) and Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.)—put an end to long-standing national-origin quotas that favored those from northern and western Europe and led to a significant immigration demographic shift in America. Since the act was passed, according to the Pew Research Center, immigrants living in America have more than quadrupled, now accounting for nearly 14 percent of the population.

The Immigration Act of 1965
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President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration Act of 1965 on Liberty Island in New York Harbor with a view of the New York City skyline in the background.

The 1965 Act Aimed to Eliminate Race Discrimination in Immigration

In 1960, Pew notes, 84 percent of U.S. immigrants were born in Europe or Canada; 6 percent were from Mexico, 3.8 percent were from South and East Asia, 3.5 percent were from Latin America and 2.7 percent were from other parts of the world. In 2017, European and Canadian immigrants totaled 13.2 percent, while Mexicans totaled 25.3 percent, other Latin Americans totaled 25.1 percent, Asians totaled 27.4 percent and other populations totaled 9 percent.

The 1965 act has to be understood as a result of the civil rights movement, and the general effort to eliminate race discrimination from U.S. law, says Gabriel “Jack” Chin, immigration law professor at University of California, Davis and co-editor of The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act: Legislating a New America.

READ MORE: U.S. Immigration Timeline

The Kennedy's and the Immigration Act of 1965
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President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) as the senator's brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) looks on after the signing of the newly enacted immigration reform bill at the Statue of liberty.

Kennedys Saw Immigration Reform as Part of Civil Rights Movement

Immigration reform was also a personal project of John F. Kennedy, Chin notes, whose pamphlet written as a senator was published after his assassination as the book A Nation of Immigrants, and argued for the elimination of the National Origins Quota System in place since 1921.

Ted Kennedy, along with Attorney General and Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.), were both proponents of the bill, in part to honor their brother and also because it was consistent with their general interest in civil rights and international cold war politics, Chin adds.

“I think every sensible person in 1965 knew that the sources of immigration would change,” Chin says. “The more fundamental change, and the more fundamental policy, was the articulation by many legislators that it simply did not matter from where an immigrant came; each person would be evaluated as an individual. That kind of argument was novel, but consistent with the anti-racism of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The act, Edward Kennedy argued during the Senate floor debate, went to the “very central ideals of our country.”

“Our streets may not be paved with gold, but they are paved with the promise that men and women who live here—even strangers and new newcomers—can rise as fast, as far as their skills will allow, no matter what their color is, no matter what the place of their birth,” he said.

Changes Introduced by the Immigration Act of 1965

Among the key changes brought by the Hart-Celler Act:

  • Quotas based on nation of origin were abolished. For the first time since the National Origins Quota system went into effect in 1921, national origin was no longer a barrier to immigration. “With the end of preferences for northern and western Europeans, immigrants were selected based on individual merit rather than race or national origin,” Chin says. “Accordingly, there were many more immigrants from Asia, Africa and other parts of the world which had traditionally been discriminated against.” The act also established new immigration policies that looked at reuniting families and giving priority to skilled laborers and professionals.
  • It restricted immigration from Mexico and Central and South America. According to Chin, there were no numerical limitations on immigration until 1921, but Western Hemisphere immigration had been exempt. “Based on the Monroe Doctrine—and the desire for the free flow of labor, especially agricultural labor—there had been no cap under the National Origins Quota System,” he says. “The 1965 act established a cap on Western Hemisphere immigration for the first time. It also followed on the unwise elimination of the [guest worker] Bracero Program in 1964. These decisions disrupted traditional patterns of labor movement and agricultural production in the United States in ways we are still grappling with.”
  • It changed immigration demographics and increased immigrant numbers. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, in 1965, 84 percent of the U.S. population consisted of non-Hispanic whites; in 2015, that number was 62 percent. “Without any post-1965 immigration, the nation’s racial and ethnic composition would be very different today: 75 percent white, 14 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic and less than 1 percent Asian,” the report finds.

    Comparing 1965 to 2015, the Hispanic population rose from 4 percent to 18 percent; and Asians grew from 1 percent to 6 percent. “This fast-growing immigrant population also has driven the share of the U.S. population that is foreign-born from 5 percent in 1965 to 14 percent today and will push it to a projected record 18 percent in 2065,” the report continues, noting that no racial or ethnic group will claim a majority of the U.S. population.