Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965

2012-07-16 13:02:31

The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 are considered by many as legislation that dramatically changed the method by which immigrants are admitted into the United States. The U.S. immigration laws of which this amendment is a part and the Immigration and Nationality Service that executes its authority are gatekeepers for the nation’s borders and ports of entry. More generally, INS laws determine who may enter the United States, how long they may stay (if at all), and when they must leave. It also determines whether a person is an alien and his or her associated legal rights, duties, and obligations in the United States. Lastly, it provides the means by which certain categories of aliens can become naturalized with full legal rights as natural born citizens of the United States.

The Act and Purpose

The purpose of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) Amendments of 1965 was to amend the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act by eliminating the ‘‘quota and national origin’’ provisions perpetuated from previous INA laws such as the Quota Act of 1921, the Immigration Act of 1924, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and the 1790 Naturalization Law. Thirteen years earlier, the 1952 act did just the opposite. It brought together the quota and national origin practices of the early 1920s that governed immigration into the United States. Thus, the 1965 amendments represented an important revision of early U.S. immigration policy that limited immigration from non-European countries to nothing but negligible levels. In repealing these restrictions, the 1965 act eliminated race and ancestry as the primary bases for U.S. immigration policy.

Significance of the Act

The significance of the 1965 INA amendments lies in the fact that they made future immigrants to the United States aware that would be welcomed for criteria such as family, occupational skills, or professions, rather than for their race, ancestry, or countries of origin. They also eliminated the national origins quota system, but established a seven-category preference system under which immigrants would be admitted. A related significance of the 1965 INA is that it was enacted in the shadows of the ongoing civil rights legislation of the early 1960s. Perhaps because of this, it represented the most far-reaching revisions of U.S. immigration policy of its time. As expected, the change in policy and, ultimately, law shifted the source of the immigration flow away from Europe towards the overpopulated developing countries. In so doing, it proposed a new principle of numerical restriction with an annual ceiling for which immigrant visas would be issued on a firstcome, first-served basis. The new setup established a seven-preference system giving priority first and foremost to family reunification. It also provided for annual ceiling limits of Western Hemisphere immigration at 120 thousand without country limits on immigrants. The new preference system gave priority to: (1) immigrants with relatives residing in the United States, (2) immigrants with occupational skills or training needed in the United States, and (3) Refugees.

Historical and Political Context

The circumstances that led to the shift in immigration policy were a complex change in public perceptions and values directing politics and legislative compromise on the issue of immigration policy of 1960. Thus, the near consensus by the legislative and executive branch on the issues of immigration as exhibited in the smooth passage of the 1965 act is noteworthy. The House of Representatives passed the legislation by a vote of 326 to 69; the Senate version was passed by a vote of 76 to 18 before President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on October 3, 1965.

Undoubtedly aided by the intense civil rights movement climate of that period, abolishing the strict quotas on Asian immigration imposed since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1965 amendment was, indeed, a catalyst for rejuvenating the Asian American community after 1965. Arguably in this context, the 1965 act was a by-product of the ‘‘rights revolution’’ movement of the 1960s tied to congressional politics of the Eighty-Ninth Congress, which produced other notable civil and voting rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. However, U.S. immigration history has always been a cobweb of legal and political jigsaw that, on close examination, reveals more than expected. Thus, given the patchwork of U.S. immigration politics, the 1965 act cannot be understood in isolation without the benefit of other previous acts in the 1920s and 1950s and their respective histories. The same holds true for all other INA amendments passed since 1965.


Summarily passed at the height of the civil rights movements of the 1960s, the INA amendments of 1965 eliminated country-specific quotas and ended discrimination. In doing so, they not only expanded the numerical limits but also opened immigration to the United States to people from parts of the world that previously were denied entry. It also increased the Eastern Hemispheric annual quotas, per country limits, and for the first time created an annual cap for the Western Hemisphere countries. However, special preference rules that made immediate family members exempt from numerical quotas caused the ceiling established under the act to be shattered. Also, the European economic prosperity of the mid-1960s caused European immigration to the United States to drop to less than 20 percent, which consequently propelled Latin America and Asia to become the leading source of U.S. immigration.

To be sure, the 1965 act represented a significant watershed in U.S. immigration history and particularly in its explicit reversal of decades of systematically exclusive and restrictive immigration policies that denied non-European immigrants from Asia, Mexico, Latin America, and other non-Western countries entry into the United States. The act recognized that discrimination could no longer be tolerated; it abolished the quota system and went a step further to include general prohibition against discrimination. For example, Section 202(a) of the INA states that ‘‘no person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of his race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.’’ Explicit from this section is a clear prohibition ‘‘except as specifically provided’’ in other sections of the act that provide for strict percountry limits. Undeniably, the language of the act is clear as to intent and purpose of U.S. immigration policy; granting or denying immigrant visas to aliens on the basis of their national origin is prohibited.


References and Further Reading

  • Chin, Gabriel J., The Civil Rights Revolution Comes to Immigration Law: A New Look at the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, North Carolina Law Review 75 (1996): 274.
  • Graham, Otis L., Jr. ‘‘Tracing Liberal Woes to ’65 Immigration Act.’’ Christian Science Monitor, 88 (1995): 23:19–23.
  • Hart–Cellar Act. Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments, October 3, 1965, (79 Statutes-at- large 911).
  • Kennedy, John F. Published Papers, 1964, pp. 594–597.
  • Kutler, Stanley. ‘‘Immigration Act of 1965.’’ In Dictionary of American History, 3rd ed., vol. 4. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003, p. 230.
  • Le, C. N. ‘‘The New Wave of Asian Immigration.’’ In Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <>September 2, 2005.
  • McCarran–Walter Immigration and Nationality Act, Immigration and Nationality Act of June 27, 1952 (INA), 66 Statutes at Large 66 (1952): 163.
  • Shih, Susan, Immigration Act of 1965, Purdue University; <
  • U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The Immigration and Naturalization Systems of the United States. S. Representatives 1515, 81st Cong., 2d Session. Washington, GPO, 1950.

See also Aliens, Civil Liberties of; Citizenship; Race in Immigration; Sex in Immigration