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|5/25: The Overwhelming Barriers to Successful Immigration Reform (2)
Released 15 June 2016  By Daniel J. Tichenor - The Atlantic
The Overwhelming Barriers to Successful Immigration Reform
Daniel J. Tichenor - The Atlantic
MAY 25, 2016
(....From Part One)
As chair of the House immigration subcommittee, Feighan made headlines in 1963 for charging that the CIA was infiltrated by Soviet spies and the actor Richard Burton should be banned from entering the country for having an “immoral” affair with Elizabeth Taylor. One year later, Feighan mobilized restrictionists in both parties to block Johnson’s immigration bill. He proposed a rival bill that promised to preserve preferences for northern and western Europeans, exclude nearly all Asians and Africans, favor immigrants with family ties, and maintain exclusions of Communists, socialists, and homosexual people. This maneuver hobbled all reform efforts until after the 1964 election.
After Johnson re-won the White House, his team renewed its push for immigration reform in 1965. Feighan and his allies held two months of hearings, peppering administration officials with questions about a new merit-based preference system and its potential impact on the number and diversity of newcomers. “How about giving the welfare of the American people first priority for a change?” he asked proponents of progressive reform.
Frustrated by Feighan’s roadblocks, Johnson led House Democrats to expand the immigration subcommittee with Johnson loyalists as crucial swing votes. Privately, Feighan told anti-immigrant lobbyists he enjoyed enough bipartisan backing to seriously limit radical policy change. Yet he understood that Johnson and reformers now had sufficient political momentum to bypass him, so he entered tough negotiations with the White House.
Eventually, Feighan and his allies agreed to dismantle the national-origins quota system and the so-called Asiatic Barred Zone—which excluded all Asians except the Japanese and Filipinos—if Johnson got rid of the administration’s emphasis on immigrant merit and skills. Feighan was convinced (incorrectly, as it turned out) that reserving most visas for immigrants with family ties to U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents would decidedly favor European applicants, thus maintaining the nation’s ethnic and racial makeup. The new preference system in the administration’s bill established four categories for family reunification, which were to receive nearly three-quarters of total annual visas. Spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens over 21 were granted admission without visa limits. The revised bill left roughly a quarter of annual visas for economic-based admissions and refugee relief.
Along with the legal preference system, the “non-quota status” of Mexican immigrants in particular and Latin Americans in general was a prominent concern for restrictionists in both houses of Congress. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other foreign-policy advisers denounced the proposal of a cap on Western Hemisphere immigration, arguing that such a step would damage relations with Central and South American countries. The administration’s stand on Western Hemisphere immigration came under withering attack in the Senate, however. Southern Democrats, led by Sam Ervin Jr. of North Carolina, threatened to stall action in the Senate immigration subcommittee unless concessions were made. Facing a major logjam, Johnson and pro-immigration lawmakers compromised with Ervin and his restriction-minded colleagues on an annual ceiling for Western Hemisphere immigration. As Johnson’s congressional liaison, Lawrence O’Brien, explained: “Listen, we’re not going to walk away from this because we didn’t get a whole loaf. We’ll take half a loaf or three-quarters of a loaf.”
This sweeping immigration reform is one of the crowning—and most controversial—achievements of the Johnson years.
Even by the standards of Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society juggernaut, the legislation that eventually passed—the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, known as INA—was monumental. Although few historians believe the law’s champions anticipated just how profoundly it would change the U.S. demographic landscape, Johnson seemed to recognize that its passage was especially significant—enough so that he oversaw the staging of an elaborate signing ceremony at the base of the Statue of Liberty. True to form, White House staffers were given strict instructions by the president to physically block political rivals like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller from the cameras assembled on the dais at Liberty Island. Hinting at the INA’s potential impact, Johnson predicted that the new law would “strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways.” Fifty years later, this sweeping immigration reform is being commemorated alongside the Voting Rights Act as one of the crowning—and most controversial—achievements of the hard-driving Johnson years.
Lyndon Johnson stands apart from his successors for shepherding landmark immigration reform through Congress. In many respects, he enjoyed exceptional advantages in championing the legislation, including its close association with his martyred predecessor and broader civil-rights reform; the near consensus of foreign-policy experts that reform served national geopolitical interests; a strong economy; an electoral landslide in 1964; and, concomitantly, huge partisan gains in both houses of Congress.
But the fact that even these favorable circumstances did not shield the Johnson administration from an arduous legislative struggle underscores the enormous political difficulty of immigration reform. The law ended a draconian national-origins quota system that was explicitly rooted in eugenicist notions of Northern and Western European superiority. Yet it took 20 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany for Congress to remove these barriers in American immigration law, showing how effectively Cold War nativists knitted together national-security and race-based fears. It’s equally revealing that, in the end, Johnson’s success depended significantly upon painful compromises with exactly these sorts of nativists. The INA defies simple characterization precisely because of this fact; it is an intricate statute that has created outcomes that were somewhat unexpected when the legislation was passed. This struggle is often hidden by the headlines, which are not wrong, but often rosy in hindsight. The INA marked a monumental watershed in U.S. immigration policy, but this kind of moment will not be easy to reproduce.
* This essay is part of the First Year Project at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
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