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The Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965

A Brief History of United States Immigration Laws

Immigration and National Act

Many people feel that the laws, rules, and policies in the United States are not ideal. Progress is always made in small steps. It’s rare for the law to become radically different overnight, but the Hart-Celler Immigration Act is an exception to that rule. Although it wasn’t perfect, the Hart-Celler Immigration Act was regarded as highly progressive for its time.

The impact of the act changed the trajectory of the immigration system for decades to come, and some remnants of its ideas still exist in our current immigration policy. 

A Brief History of Diversity in Immigration Laws of the United States

Many people refer to the fact that the United States initially prided itself on being a safe haven for persecuted people from all over the world, quoting the poem featured on the iconic Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Although the verse is beautiful in theory, it was never incorporated into the ideology of early United States immigration policy. Most early United States immigration policies were undeniably prejudiced, designed to restrict entire races or ethnic groups from becoming a resident of the United States or obtaining visas.

Early freethinkers and diversity advocates were quick to take issue with these policies, becoming the first unofficial immigration reform advocates. It took decades for the law to catch up with these ideas, and the process still isn’t over. 

We occasionally encounter controversial policies like the short-lived Executive Order 13769 of January 27, 2017, Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States, which was quickly decried as a ban on Muslim foreign nationals by critics of the order. 

Despite these setbacks, diversity, tolerance, and acceptance have been on an upward trajectory for decades. Our history has been imperfect, but our future has the promise to be much brighter. 

What Is the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965?

The Hart-Celler Act, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This act eradicated a policy called the national origins quota system, an immigration quota designed to prohibit people of Asian, Southern European, and Eastern European descent from immigrating to the United States.

President Lyndon Johnson (also known as LBJ) signed the act into law on Liberty Island at the base of the Statue of Liberty, where the aforementioned poem described a scenario similar to the one the act proposed. 

At the time the Hart-Celler Act was passed, naturalization benefits were denied to nearly every person who was not of Northwestern European origin. U.S. immigration laws were designed to favor Caucasian immigrants from The United Kingdom. 

This law also started an immigration preference system that is the basis for the system we still use today. Children and family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents were given priority options to immigrate to the United States. Professionals who could fill in-demand jobs and uniquely skilled workers were bumped closer to the top of the list for consideration, as were refugees and those seeking asylum.

Who Were Hart and Celler?

Phillip Hart was a senator who co-signed the Hart-Celler Act with Emanuel Celler, whose advocacy created the act. Celler was a Brooklyn, New York native and Democratic member of the House of Representatives, where he represented his hometown. Before serving as a member of Congress, Celler worked as an attorney. He used his litigation skills to debate issues in Congress and advocate for equality under the law.

Celler did not specifically work on immigration committees but took up immigration as his strongest cause after discussions of the exclusionary Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 took place in Congress. Celler felt the act to be egregiously discriminatory for making entire ethnic groups eligible for immigration. This became a turning point for Celler, who would become fervently involved in every immigration discussion that arose throughout his political career. 

Celler garnered attention when discussing how restrictive immigration policies endangered people during the holocaust when many people were seeking to escape Europe, North Africa, and North Asia to avoid the violence of World War II and the persecution from the nazi party. 

Celler designed and proposed the Immigration Act of 1965 to increase the number of immigrants admitted into the United States from outside of the Western Hemisphere. It was already difficult for citizens of Mexico to become Mexican-American, but it was outright impossible for most people from the Eastern Hemisphere to become American residents.

Where Are Hart and Celler Now?

To this day, Celler remains the longest-serving New York congress member in history for serving 50 consecutive years in the House of Representatives. He lost his final re-election bid to a female candidate, Elizabeth Holtzman, over a single issue that caused division among Democratic voters. 

Holtzman favored the adoption and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, a civil rights act that would treat women as fully equal to men under the law. To this day, the Equal Rights Amendment hasn’t been ratified. 

Celler remained an active voice in the American political sphere after leaving office in 1973. Celler granted interviews with political publications about his opinions, ideas, and experiences. He died in 1981 at the age of 92. 

The Impact of the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965

The Hart-Celler Immigration Act significantly changed the diversity and demographics of new immigrants in the United States of America. After the act’s passage, voluntary immigrants from African countries became a statistically significant demographic for the first time in history.

Asian Americans were finally able to feel at home in America after this revolutionary bill lifted race and region related restrictions designed to prohibit them from feeling like valued members of society. 

This immigration bill made it easier for citizens and permanent residents to bring their immediate relatives to the United States, promoting unity and allowing generations to establish their roots in the country. Family reunification was finally possible for the small Asian population that existed within the United States. 

The passage of the Hart-Celler Act was regarded as a step in the right direction, but activists asked for more. While the act made it possible for non-white people, especially Hispanic immigrants and those from Latin America and elsewhere, to immigrate to the United States, it didn’t fully end immigration-based discrimination. 

LGBTQ Communities in the 1960s

In 1965, the country was just beginning to socially explore the integration of LGBTQ people into society. Heterosexuality and traditional gender roles were regarded as a cornerstone of American society during the height of the “nuclear family” age. Every family had a mother, a father, and an average of two children. Society didn’t understand the value of LGBTQ individuals who existed outside of the familial norm. 

LGBTQ individuals from other countries, including those seeking asylum in the United States, were still routinely turned away. They were openly discriminated against on the grounds of “constitutional psychopathic inferiority.”

Homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness until 1973, even though many mental health professionals disagreed with this classification. In the 1960s, society had only just started having conversations about gender identity, gender roles, and what it meant to be transgender.

Understanding, tolerance, education, and acceptance hadn’t reached a point where members of this community were recognized as sane, safe, healthy, and normal. As discussions progressed and education grew, the Hart-Celler Act served as a launching pad or precedent for why hopeful LGBTQ immigrants should be afforded the same rights as any other immigrant.

The Future of Immigration in the United States

Many immigration reform advocates feel as though the current immigration laws in the United States are not progressive enough. They would like to see the United States become home to a diverse group of people, including asylum seekers and refugees who need a safe place to raise their families. 

While American immigration law is far from perfect, it’s leaps and bounds from where it used to be. Laws change slowly, but changes are typically meaningful. Society is much quicker to hold leaders to account when they pass laws that could be construed as prejudiced or discriminatory.

At Cohen, Tucker + Ades, we have always been passionate about immigration reform. Many members of our team are immigrants or children of immigrants. It’s a cause that’s close to our heart and at the core of everything we do. We’ll always advocate for immigration laws that prioritize diversity, tolerance, and acceptance. 


Presidential Documents: Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States | Federation of American Scientists Intelligence Resource Program

Celler Declines to Seek Re‐election to the House | The New York Times

Charles Silverstein and the Declassification of Homosexuality as a Mental Illness | GLSEN

Trans Pioneers – Trans and Gender-Nonconforming Histories | Historic England


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