Hart-Cellar Act of 1965

The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965

Courtney Spinelli, December 2014

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, more commonly referred to as the Hart-Cellar Act, was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965. This groundbreaking change in immigration policy would create a lasting impact on citizens of the United States and those traveling to the country in hopes of becoming a citizen. This revolutionary transformation in immigration policy was the result of many years of hard work by lawmakers and followed other pieces of legislation, which upheld stricter immigration laws. You may be familiar with the Johnson-Reed Act, which was enacted in 1924. This law ultimately governed immigration into the United States and would for many years to follow. The Johnson-Reed Act fundamentally stated that there was a limit on the amount of immigrants that would be allowed into the United States and this limit would be based on a national origins quota. Signed by President Coolidge, the quota “provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia” [1]. After the 1917 Act required immigrants 16 years and older to pass a basic literacy test, politicians argued for a stricter system to limit the number of immigrants that would be allowed into the United States, thus implementing the Immigration Act of 1924. Fast forward to 41 years later, in 1965, and the United States is finally taking a step in the right direction towards creating a more fair, and more reasonable system regarding immigration and naturalization.

It was during the signing of the Hart-Cellar Act where President Johnson made an audacious statement in regard to this new act, “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power” [2]. Was this true? Would this bill truly be insignificant to the process of improving the gaps in immigration laws and have virtually no long term effect on the United States? The Hart-Cellar Act came as a solution to the long-standing immigration issues in the United States and after its passing in 1965, this piece of legislation certainly created a sweeping effect on the country, which is still being felt today.

Background of Immigration Issues

As previously mentioned, there were many issues surrounding immigration in the United States prior to the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act. Much earlier in United States history, during the 19th century, there were no laws governing immigration at all. In fact, before 1882, according to Roger Daniels, “there were no significant restrictions on any group of free immigrants who wanted to settle in the United States of America” [3]. It was not until the year of 1875 that the Supreme Court declared immigration a federal responsibility, not that of the states. The rising number of immigrants at this time became a cause for concern and Congress began looking into options of how to restrict these numbers. The first action was to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and to follow, the Alien Contract Labor Laws of 1885 and 1887 were passed. These three pieces of legislation “prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States” [4]. Following these laws being enacted, federal immigration stations were set up and today, we recognize Ellis Island as being one of the largest immigration stations and port of entry during the late 19th century. Just a few decades to follow, the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 was created, which complemented the idea that states no longer had control over immigration laws. While there were many individual pieces of legislation passed prior to the Immigration Act of 1924, or the Johnson-Reed Act, these were the ones that ultimately paved the way for future immigration reform. Moving forward on the subject, this is what historian Roger Daniels had to say about immigration restrictions nearing the 1920s:

Immigration had been limited in seven major ways. First, most Asians were barred as a group. Among immigrants, as a whole, certain criminals, people who failed to meet certain moral standards, those with various diseases and disabilities, paupers or “persons likely to become a public charge,” some radicals, and illiterates were specifically barred [5].

Wartime challenges, just a few years later, of course, reduced the number of immigrants that would be coming from Europe, but still, with the 1924 law still being in place, something more drastic had to be done. Many small pieces of legislation were enforced between the 20s and 60s, but just after the mid-20th century mark passed, the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 was put into place; this unquestionably became one of the most important pieces of immigration legislation in United States history.

Hart-Cellar Act of 1965

Enacted during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, or the Hart-Cellar Act, was subsequently a result of the many issues with the quota system set by the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. In a time full of ethnical and racial issues, this was a step in the right direction towards creating a nation that promotes acceptance and integration. On an even larger scale, however, authorities argued that this enactment gave even greater weight to a change in American foreign policy; “They argue that immigration policy is a subset of foreign policy and that the monocultural goals of policies laid down in the 1920s were inappropriate for a nation seeking global leadership” [6]. To sum up the Hart-Cellar Act in the most simplified way possible, it eliminated the quotas previously set in the early 20th century, made family reunions a priority, valued job skills, and opened immigration to those who were prohibited from immigrating during the decades prior. Many people advocated for the passage of an immigration reform act, one of those individuals being John F. Kennedy, just one year before the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act,

[The laws in place] neither satisfies a national need nor accomplishes an international purpose. In an age of interdependence among nations, such a system is an anachronism for it discriminates among applicants for admission into the United States on the basis of the accident of birth [7].

We know that this was an extremely important milestone during the mid-twentieth century, but there is one especially important question that we must approach; would this piece of legislation have a lasting impact on the United States? President Lyndon B. Johnson argued otherwise.

Long-Term Effects of the Hart-Cellar Act

In a nation built on immigration, of course the Hart-Cellar Act would create a lasting impact; this was a substantial piece of history – it opened up the borders that had been closed off to a certain ethnic group for almost four decades and supported the immigration of those whose family members were American Citizens or permanent resident aliens. Many people, including President Johnson, doubted that this act would be as powerful as it has turned out to be and feared that the only impact it would have would be allowing large numbers of immigrants to pour into the United States. While this law has allowed for people to immigrate to the United States, it is no secret that today’s number of illegal immigrants is higher than ever. Despite the need for heightened security after the events on September 11, 2001, that number does not seem to be dropping and has only been increasing in years prior to today. According to a story published by the Washington Times, the government claimed there were 11 million illegal immigrants, however, Zack Taylor, chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, Inc., argues otherwise; “The more likely figure is 18-20 million and rising daily” [8]. To look at this simply in a negative way seems unnecessary, nonetheless. The impact of the Hart-Cellar Act has allowed for many to reunite with families and pursue a life that they otherwise may have not been able to. This piece of legislation has had both its negative impacts as well as positive impacts on the United States, but one thing that cannot be argued against; it has played a substantial role in immigration over the past almost six decades.

Now that we have discussed the background on immigration policies and how the
Hart-Cellar Act came to law, we can observe that it has had substantial lasting impacts on the United States. Extensive research has proven that this was a long time in the works and there was a struggle to reach agreements for many years prior to the passing of this legislation. Without the Hart-Cellar Act, it would be difficult to predict what the United States would have been like today; what would the numbers in immigration (both legal and illegal) look like? How easy would it be for people to access the United States if they belonged to a certain ethnicity or were born in a certain place? It is ludicrous to even inquire about these things, but frankly, without the passing of the Hart-Cellar Act we may never have known otherwise.


[1] U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act) – 1921–1936 – Milestones. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/immigration-act

[2] Daniels, Roger, U.S. Department of State, The Immigration Act of 1965.
http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/publication/2008/04/20080423214226eaifas0.9637982.html#axzz3Hbr5AOE3 (April 3, 2008).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,
Early American Immigration Policies http://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/our-history/agency-history/early-american-immigration-policies (September 26, 2013)

[5] Daniels, Roger, U.S. Department of State, The Immigration Act of 1965

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kennedy, John F., Public Papers of the Presidents, U.S. Government Printing Office (1964), pp. 594-597. Received from the Center of Immigration Studies, Three Decades of Mass Immigration: The Legacy of the 1965 Immigration Act
http://cis.org/1965ImmigrationAct-MassImmigration (September 1995).

[8] Dinan, Stephen, Nearly 20 Million Illegal Immigrants in U.S., Former Border Patrol Agents Say, Washington Times, September 9, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/sep/9/nearly-20m-illegal-immigrants-us-ex-border-patrol/

Further Reading

“Post-9/11.” Department of Homeland Security: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration
Services. September 13, 2013. Accessed November 2, 2014. http://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/our-history/agency-history/post-911.

A Nation of Immigrants, Arrival: Immigration Act of 1965.” The City University of
New York. Accessed November 2, 2014.

Worcester State University Fall 2022