The Hart-Cellar Act: A Demographic Revolution

Modern United States immigration policy is shaped by four main goals:

  1. Social – Family reunification
  2. Economic – Fulfilling labor shortages with skilled workers
  3. Political – Refuge from persecution
  4. Cultural – Increased diversity

You might be thinking that one of these things is not like the others. When, exactly, did diversity become an official policy goal of the United States government? A glance back at history, and at the treatment of countless groups of immigrants, suggests that the very opposite was true. Ethnocentrism prevailed as national policy for decades, shutting out specific peoples entirely, imposing strict national quotas on others, denying hundreds of thousands of naturalized citizens their rights to participation in government. From Chinese Exclusion to the National Origins Formula to Mexican Repatriation, American immigration policy prior to the last 50 years was, by all appearances, positively hostile to anyone from outside of Western Europe. Some of these policies are now considered to be deeply racist, even eugenicist, in nature.

How then did so many Americans come to be proud of the nation’s status as a “melting pot”? When did “Diversity” become a Core Democratic Value? How is it that, despite what seems to be an aggressively nativist history, non-Hispanic white Americans are expected to be a racial minority by 2042? And is all this inclusiveness and exaltation of diversity merely a façade for more deeply buried beliefs in cultural supremacy?

My parents first attempted to move to the United States from India during the massive flux of immigration of the 1970s. They were denied entry, even though they both had undergraduate degrees, and my dad’s sister and her husband had already been living in Michigan for several years. Undeterred, they opted for Canada instead, where they settled for over 15 years before finally making their way to the US. However, the transition was not as easy as it may sound. Leaving behind the large, cosmopolitan metropolis of Toronto for a small, overwhelmingly white Michigan suburb required major cultural transition. Only shortly after we arrived were we blindsided by post-9/11 social anxiety and suspicion, much of which was targeted towards people of certain coloring and cultural backgrounds, my family included. While 9/11 was a deeply tragic event, it was still rather shocking and upsetting to find that, even in the 21st century, many Americans were not immune to the racial prejudices of decades past.

All that being said, these are merely some of the issues that extend from my topic, and I imagine that I won’t have the time or space to address them all. But I do have a starting point: much of immigration policy in the United States today hinges on one important act of Congress that came out of the 1960s. Always occupying a mere supporting role next to the Civil Rights Acts, Cold War politics, and the Great Society programs, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act, is often described as the most important piece of legislation that nobody knows about. The Hart-Cellar Act was in large part responsible for ending national quotas and truly opening the doors to immigration from Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

The importance of this legislation cannot be underscored enough, not only as a social gesture, but as a force in shaping modern politics. In his attempt to push the act through Congress, Ted Kennedy assuaged nativist fears by asserting that the Hart-Cellar Act wouldn’t significantly alter American demographics, that the white majority would remain intact, and that “America” as white conservatives understood it was under no immediate attack. Of course, he was completely wrong–though opinions may differ on whether this is for better or worse. Indeed, it can be argued that the Hart-Cellar Act was almost single-handedly responsible for shaping current demographics, including the emergence of large Asian and Hispanic populations.

I plan to address the implications that this particular legislation has had in shaping modern politics. By permanently altering the demographics of the nation, the potency of the act has extended far deeper than anyone could have imagined. The changes to immigration policy encoded in this document have forever changed the color of the American electorate, and there are numerous questions that arise from this issue. For example, would Barack Obama have been elected president were it not for the Hart-Cellar Act, and the support of the Asian and Hispanic communities that benefited from it? Should Americans of European descent be concerned that the United States and its intellectual and culture heritage are suffering from the continued growth of these non-white groups? What precisely is the role of first- and second-generation immigrants in developing current US policy? These are just some of the questions I’m considering tackling in more depth, although it’s likely more than I can handle at this point!


About Monika Kothari

I'm currently a third-year student in the James Madison College at Michigan State University, class of 2013. My majors are PTCD (Political Theory & Constitutional Democracy) and Anthropology. This year I'll be researching the development and influence of the Hart-Cellar Act (the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965) on modern demographics and politics. My interests include Quiz Bowl, modern art, vegetarianism, drawing comics, and creative writing among other things, and I'll be participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this November. After graduating, I hope to pursue graduate studies in social/cultural anthropology.
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One Response to The Hart-Cellar Act: A Demographic Revolution

  1. Pingback: Another Gift From The Democrats. The Hart-Cellar Act: A Demographic Revolution —

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