Mike Kueber's Blog

July 3, 2011

Was American immigration policy racist before 1965?

During the annual meeting of the State Bar of Texas, I attended a session that discussed American immigration policy.  One of the speakers, a professor from Rice University, charged that American immigration policy was shameful and racist prior to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.  I recalled that, until 1965, there was a quota on immigrants-per-country based on that country’s population in the U.S., but I didn’t think that amounted to racism.  The Rice professor didn’t elaborate on his charge, so I decided to verify.

I confirmed that the Immigration Act of 1924 included a National Origins Formula, which restricted immigration on the basis of existing proportions of the population.  The admitted goal of the Formula was to maintain the current ethnic and religious composition of the United States, and it had the effect of giving low quotas to Eastern and Southern Europe (Italians, Catholics, and Jews).  The law’s impact varied widely by country – e.g., immigration from Great Britain and Ireland fell 19%, while immigration from Italy fell more than 90%; of the 155,000 permitted entries, 86% were from Northern European countries, with Germany, Britain, and Ireland having the highest quotas.  Ironically, immigration from Latin America was not restricted.

The 1924 Act also limited immigration to persons eligible for naturalization, and since Asians were not eligible for naturalization under the Naturalization Act of 1790 (because they were non-white), they were effectively banned from immigration.  Chinese immigration had been prohibited since 1882.  The Asian ban was repealed in 1943, but only small numbers of Asian immigrants were authorized until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.  The Act of 1965 abolished the National Origins Formula and replaced it with a preference system that focused on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with citizens or residents of the U.S.

The preference system doesn’t sound very different from a National Origin Formula, although it would shift preference toward those nationalities that immigrated more recently.  Principal sponsor Senator Teddy Kennedy argued:

  • “First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same…. Secondly, the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset…. Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and deprived nations of Africa and Asia…. In the final analysis, the ethnic pattern of immigration under the proposed measure is not expected to change as sharply as the critics seem to think…. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.”

Upon signing the Act of 1965, President Johnson took a more high-minded tone:

  • “This [old] system violates the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man. It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country.”

Contrary to Kennedy’s assurances, according to Wikipedia, the 1965 Actresulted in new immigration from non-European nations which changed the ethnic make-up of the United States.  Immigration doubled between 1965 and 1970, and doubled again between 1970 and 1990.  The most dramatic effect was to shift immigration from Europe to Asia and Central and South America.”

Based on this information, one can reasonably conclude that the National Origins Formula was not a racist policy.  In fact, I believe that admitting immigrants to ensure the ethnic and religious status quo makes more sense than limiting immigration to those with recent family connections in America.  Contrary to LBJ’s claim to taking the high road, I think the National Origins Formula allows for meritocractic selection, whereas the family-preference law provides for legalized nepotism.  Tell me which is more American.

There is no denying, however that the Chinese and Asian Exclusion Acts were racist, and those policies were not fully repealed until 1965.  Thus, the Rice professor correctly charged that American immigration policy was racist until 1965.  But he levied his charge during a discussion of illegal immigration from Mexico, and he might have elaborated that his charge applied to Asian immigration.



  1. I don’t understand your point.

    On what planet is a National Origins Formula, which favors Europeans over Asians or Africans, and “light-skinned” Europeans over “swarthy” Europeans not racist? Particularly when one of it’s stated policy objectives is to preserve the “ethnic mix” of the country?

    Comment by Anonymous — July 3, 2011 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

    • Anonymous, upon further reflection, a quota to preserve the existing religious and ethnic mix is not an American value. American values should be race- and religion-neutral. But I don’t think the National Origins Formula is necessarily racist. Most countries prefer immigrants who possess a cultural affinity.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — July 3, 2011 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

  2. How can anyone in the 21st century still justify the 1924 Immigration act as non-racist ? It was one of the most racist policies of US history, drafted for purely racist reasons under the guise of “preserving American Values”. Sounds all too familiar to the Australia-White Migration policy which was only repelled as early as 1980s (still continues indirectly till date). Australia is the most racist nation on earth till today thanks to the well promoted “preservation of Australian values” which is a racist mask for white only immigration.

    Comment by james — May 4, 2012 @ 8:04 am | Reply

    • James, thanks for your comments. As a starting point, I should have included a definition of racism – i.e., a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. Isn’t it possible for a country (or a family or an individual) to prefer admitting (or joining with) someone of their own race without being racist?

      Comment by Mike Kueber — May 4, 2012 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

  3. I don’t care what color you are, what happened to the rules that you have to have a skill to take care of you and yours? We are importing people On Purpose that have absolutely no skills, can’t speak our language, and will be on welfare from here on out. Ex. Somalis. It makes absolutely zero sense. I hate welfare unless you are truly physically or mentally disabled. Those who won’t work shouldn’t eat.

    Comment by Konnie — December 10, 2014 @ 2:04 am | Reply

  4. And didn’t we later on reach the Kennedy nay sayer-like levels of a million or more legal immigrants a year throughout the 1990’s? And under most versions of “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” wouldn’t that number soar even higher? It seems like we do need various , specific reforms, but not ones that will destabilize our population into even more over-crowding for America’s already “teeming” cities.

    Comment by Harvey Pearson — December 19, 2014 @ 5:38 am | Reply

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