When the new Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 passed through Congress with strong bi-partisan support, lawmakers and their constituents had no idea they had just laid the groundwork for the most significant demographic shift in United States history since the discovery of the New World.
As Congress debated this new immigration policy, there were still those who wanted to keep the status quo. One such group successfully amended the law with the intention of retaining the primarily Anglo-Saxon, European composition of new immigrants.
They added a last-minute provision stating that people with family members already living in the U.S. would have priority status. They reasoned this would keep people of other nationalities and races from easily entering the country.
This provision ironically became one of the catalysts for the new immigration of the last four decades. As the geopolitical winds shifted, the flow of immigration from European countries slowed to a trickle. In its place came a wave of new immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere, specifically in Latin America. As these countries emerged from the bonds of colonialism and faced political and economic upheaval, their citizens looked to the U.S. for freedom and stability.
The Faces in the Wave
It is hard to get a true sense of just how dramatic this new immigration shift was without seeing it in pictures. Take a look at this timeline of immigration since 1850. Here you see the steady climb in numbers of immigrants to the U.S. from 1850-1930. After that, a steady decline in numbers and share of the population ensued. Then, starting in 1965 we see the numbers rocket upward and the population share climb by nearly 10%.
Now take a look at this map. Here you see the top country of origin of immigrants in each state going back to 1850. This illustration shows just how dramatic this shift has been. The wave of change over this time is absolutely stunning.
In 1965, white people of European descent made up 84% of the U.S. population, whereas people of Hispanic origin comprised 4% and people from Asia were less than 1%. Now, whites make up 62%, Hispanics 18%, and Asians 6%. These numbers are set to change even more in the next fifty years.
It is important to state here that most of the immigrants entering the country since 1965 have done so legally. Legal immigration doubled in the two decades following 1965 and then tripled from 1989 to 1991. That tripling followed a new law in 1986 that introduced new pathways to legalized immigration for people who had entered the country illegally.
Another important fact is the educational levels of new immigrants have steadily improved since the 1970s. As of 2013, 41% of new immigrants were college graduates, whereas that number was only 20% in 1970. For native-born citizens, those numbers are 30% and 11%, respectively.
New Immigration of Unintended Consequences
To recap, legal immigration into the United States changed dramatically beginning in 1965. This shift occurred when a confluence of events completely changed the immigration landscape of the country. The new immigration law, greater prosperity and stability in Europe, and a new door of entry for Latin American immigrants escaping the turmoil in their homelands combined to form a new immigration unlike any in our history.
There is one more chapter to this story, however. Not only did our lawmakers and citizens of 1965 fail to see the unintended consequences of legal immigration. They also set the stage for illegal entry into the country on a grand scale.