The Hart-Celler Act (1965) heralds a new era for Indian immigrants
“This bill says simply that from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here. This is a simple test, and it is a fair test. Those who can contribute most to this country--to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit--will be the first that are admitted to this land. The fairness of this standard is so self-evident that we may well wonder that it has not always been applied. Yet the fact is that for over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and has been distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system. Under that system the ability of new immigrants to come to America depended upon the country of their birth. Only 3 countries were allowed to supply 70 percent of all the immigrants.”
- President Lyndon B. Johnson’s remarks at the signing of the Immigration bill, Liberty Island, New York, October 3, 1965
The narrative on the Indian experience in America, focuses almost entirely on the 5 decades after 1965, when the passage of the Hart-Celler Act, opened the doors to Asians, Latinos, Africans and Southern Europeans, ending the “national origins” quotas that had been in place since 1924. Indians revel in their successes in America since the doors opened but completely gloss over the struggles and racism experienced by the first Indians who immigrated. Pioneers like Dalip Singh Saund, who lobbied and fought for citizenship rights for Asians and the struggles of the San Francisco based Gadar party are all but unknown to the Indian American community. Nor is the history of restrictive immigration laws such as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act (1917) or the National Origins Act (1924) known to the community. But the relative openness of the past 5 decades may be coming to an end as the Trump administration looks to impose limits on the HI- B category, an employment based visa category used by a large number of Indians. The door maybe shutting again, driven as it always has been, by the white working class and co-opted politicians.
The Hart-Celler Act, signed into law by President Johnson, opened America’s doors, after a gap of 40 years, to Asians, Latinos, Africans and Southern Europeans. The Act favored family reunification and employment based immigration ending European (the region favored in the National Origin Act) heavy immigration to the US. The Hart-Celler Act, though it repudiated many of the restrictions of previous immigration laws, didn’t pass with unequivocal and untempered public support. Many Americans opposed it but eventually it’s passage at the time, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, seemed like the right thing to do for a country that was trying to move beyond a racist past. The Hart-Celler Act could be seen as one component of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Even its own promoters in congress didn’t forsee the huge changes that it would bring to the demographic composition of the country. President Johnson, summed up the sentiments of those who’d promoted the bill in his remarks at the signing ceremony: “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions”. The Secretary of State predicted that only 8000 immigrants from India were estimated to move to the US in the 5 years after the bill’s passage!
Nonetheless, the Hart-Celler Act was a huge step forward from the infamous National Origins Act (1924), also known as the Asian Exclusion Act, which was passed for no other reason but to preserve the prevailing Northern European composition of the US and maintain its homogeneity. An annual quota of 153,700 was established according to a formula based on 2% of the population of each nation of origin in accordance with the census of 1890. Since ethnic English, Irish and Germans made up most of the US population prior to 1890 (Southern & Eastern Europeans came later) the countries most favored by this formula were of course Great Britain (43% of the annual quota), Germany (17%) and Ireland (12%). From 1924 to 1965, a period of 40 years, 70% of the immigrants allowed to enter the US were from these 3 countries alone.
Asians were completely barred from entering the US since the National Origins Act also prohibited those nationalities that the US Supreme Court had, in 1923, prohibited from citizenship (United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind). In an interview with NPR’s Jennifer Ludden in May 2006, Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University remarked “The law was just unbelievable in its clarity of racism. It declared that Northern Europeans are a superior subspecies of the white race. The Nordics were superior to the Alpines, who in turn were superior to the Mediterraneans, and all of them were superior to the Jews and the Asians."
The National Origins Act had passed almost unanimously with only 6 dissenting votes in the US Senate. However, the debates leading up to its passage revealed arguments both in favor of and against the legislation. In particular, Robert H. Clancy, a Republican congressman from Detroit defended the “Americanism” of Jewish, Italian, and Polish immigrants, many of whom were among his constituents, and attacked the national origin quotas as “un-American.” In a speech to Congress on April 8, 1924, Clancy said “the foreign born of my district writhe under the charge of being called “hyphenates.” The people of my own family were all hyphenates— English-Americans, German- Americans, Irish-Americans. They began to come in the first ship or so after the Mayflower. But they did not come too early to miss the charge of anti-Americanism. Roger Williams was driven out of the Puritan colony of Salem to die in the wilderness because he objected “violently” to blue laws and the burning or hanging of rheumatic old women on witchcraft charges. He would not “assimilate” and was “a grave menace to American Institutions and democratic government.”
In casting his dissenting vote, congressman Clancy declared, “Then I would be true to the principles for which my forefathers fought and true to the real spirit of the magnificent United States of today. I cannot stultify myself by voting for the present bill and overwhelm my country with racial hatreds and racial lines and antagonisms drawn even tighter than they are today”.