LBJ led crucial legislation in 1965, changing the demographics of the U.S. But it offers a difficult model for future presidents to follow.
Nearly every new American president of the modern era has viewed the nation’s immigration policies as deeply flawed. Yet few of these modern executives have been willing to make immigration reform—one of the most dangerous issues in American politics—central to their agenda. Even fewer have had a measure of success doing so. Even the most dramatic and successful of all—Lyndon Johnson’s landmark 1965 reform—came with high political costs and uneven results. Yet, Johnson’s battle for reform underscores the way immigration policy can be a potent political tool and offers a model for future presidents.
Today, as in the past, efforts to significantly revise U.S. immigration laws and policies have divided even the most unified party coalitions. Campaigns for sweeping reform in this arena have regularly followed a tortured path of false starts, prolonged negotiation, and frustrating stalemate. And when non-incremental reforms have passed, rival goals and interests have complicated enactment. The result has been legislation that is typically unpopular among ordinary citizens and stakeholder groups alike, and which often places new and sometimes competing policy demands on the government. These dynamics—intraparty conflicts, elusive problem definition, difficult compromises, and unpopular outcomes—have typically frustrated most American presidents.