Alana Semuels: What did immigration policy look like before Presidents Kennedy and Johnson proposed these changes?
John Skrentny: In the early 1920s, the United States was coming off of a massive wave of immigration between the 1800s and the 1900s. It slowed down around World War I, but a lot of people were freaking out about it, so they passed these immigration restrictions that were based on the demographic profile of the United States at that time. The point of it was to say, “Take a snapshot, this is what we look like demographically here, let's keep this.” The quotas were allowed based on maintaining these same percentages. It disadvantaged people from southern and eastern Europe, and meanwhile, Asians were almost completely excluded.
Semuels: Why did Kennedy and Johnson want to change this system?
Skrentny: It was a major propaganda issue, in that the Soviet Union was continually hammering against the United States, saying, “Hey, this supposed beacon of freedom doesn’t even want you to come to the United States. Look at how they allocate visas.” We gave very, very few to eastern Europe. Asia had a quota of like 100 for each country. During World War II, the Japanese were telling the Chinese, “Hey, your supposed ally loves you so much they won’t even let you enter their country.”
So then the question was, if we’re going to get rid of the national-origin discrimination, which really gave preference to northern and western Europeans, what should we give preference to? And the view from the Kennedy administration and the view from the Johnson administration was initially skills, which public-opinion polling showed a preference for too.
It’s interesting historically—that idea kind of had synergies or harmonies with what was going on in the civil-rights movement. The civil-rights movement at the time was saying, “Stop paying attention to race—let people go as far as their abilities will take them.” It was kind of a meritocracy approach to immigration.
Semuels: What happened? Why wasn't this enacted?
Skerenty: The problem was that a lot of members of Congress—mostly from the South—were really worried about that approach. They thought that the people with the best skills might be from countries that they didn't think “fit in” best with America. So in order to get votes from Southern Democrats, to support the ending of national-origin discrimination, the White House had to find a different system that satisfied the Democrats. And the system that satisfied them was family reunification. The Democrats’ thinking was that since the U.S. was overwhelmingly white, and mostly northern and western European, that northern and western European potential migrants would have a leg up over everyone else, and that the demographic mix would become self-reinforcing.
Semuels: Did that strategy end up working out the way Southern Democrats wanted it to, or backfiring?