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Legacies of the 1965 Immigration Act

By Erika Lee Email By Erika Lee
October 2016
Legacies of the 1965 Immigration Act


Snapshots from Indian-American history,
this month, that year


The “Postcard” (left) – October 3, 1965
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act, abolishing the national origins quota system with its discrimination against specific nationalities attempting to seek a new life in the U.S.

The “Letter” (below) – October 1, 2015
Legacies of the 1965 Immigration Act:
Once Barred, Indian-Americans Now Constitute the Second-Largest Immigrant Group

Fifty years ago, on October 3, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act into law. He and a number of the nation’s leading lawmakers traveled to Liberty Island and the base of the Statue of Liberty to make it official.

The 1965 Immigration Act remains the foundation of U.S. immigration law and represents the last time that the U.S. passed comprehensive immigration reform. It has transformed every aspect of American society….

But Asian Americans, especially Indian-Americans, have been particularly affected by this landmark act.

Inspired by the Civil Rights revolution in American society, the 1965 Immigration Act abolished the discriminatory national origins quotas. … A new preference system [was] based on professional status and family reunification.

… Many lawmakers still held on to nativist and even racist views on immigration.

… A compromise measure … set a global ceiling on immigration per year and established limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere for the first time …[leading to] unprecedented undocumented immigration beginning in the 1970s.

… Countries like India were expanding their educational systems and … many Indians looked abroad, including to the U.S., for opportunities.

From 1980 to 2013, the Indian immigrant population in the U.S. increased from 206,000 to 2.04 million, doubling every decade.

… The Immigration Act of 1990 … increased the number of permanent work-based visas and made changes to the temporary skilled worker categories. In 2014, Indians received 70 percent of the 316,000 H-1B visas …. Students from India are the secondlargest group of international students in the United States after China.

… The Pakistani American community … grew by nearly 90 percent during [the’90s] and there are now over 409,000 Pakistanis in the country.

… [In politics, we now have names such as Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, and in business Sundar Pichai (Google) and Satya Nadella (Microsoft)]. At the same time, countless Indian and other South Asian immigrants struggle at the economic, social, and political margins of American society. Many labor in exploitative work conditions, are not proficient in English, and are victims of violent hate crimes, like the shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that claimed the lives of six worshippers in 2012. And according to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, the unauthorized Indian immigrant population experiences the greatest growth rate amongst all unauthorized immigrants, increasing by 914 percent since 1990.

… The foreign-born population in the U.S. now numbers nearly 41 million, or around 13 percent of the total U.S. population. … As we mark the anniversary of the 1965 Immigration Act, let’s reflect on how far Asian Americans have come, but also, how far there is yet to go.  

Erika Lee is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of the award-winning book, The Making of Asian America: A History.

(For the history of South Asian immigration to the U.S. and the restrictive laws, see the full article at https://www.saada.org/tides/article/20151001-4458)

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