Justice  /  Explainer

The Contradictory Legacy of the 1965 Immigration Act

A law designed to repair flaws in the fabric of American justice also created new ones.

The new law also left few options for unskilled and low-skilled workers to enter the U.S. just as global demand for such labor (in agriculture, industry, hospitality, and service) was increasing. The result was a perfect storm of conditions that allowed unauthorized immigration to grow to unprecedented levels by the end of the 20th century. The latest statistics from the Department of Homeland Security estimate that there are around 11.6 million immigrants living without authorization in the U.S. today, mostly from Mexico and Central America. In 2013, the Obama administration deported a record 438,421 unauthorized immigrants, continuing a trend of increased enforcement that has resulted in more than 2 million deportations during his administration.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 remains the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy today, heralding a new era that was simultaneously more inclusive for some and more exclusionary for others. It’s now time to decide which of these legacies to advance into the future. We have not yet achieved President Johnson’s goal of establishing an immigration law that helps the United States create “a world without war [and] a world made safe for diversity, in which all men, goods, and ideas can freely move across every border and every boundary.” But the need has never been greater. As we become increasingly interconnected to each other across national borders through technology and transportation, we are no longer isolated from events halfway around the world. The current refugee crisis in Europe is likely not a singular anomaly, but rather a sign of things to come. As was the case in 1965, how the United States will respond to this new age of global migration will be another test of how it lives up to, or fails to live up to its values and its reputation as a “nation of immigrants.”