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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.

Lyndon Johnson was well aware of these challenges as a first-year president, yet he forged ahead knowing the fight for sweeping immigration reform would be far more taxing and unpredictable than nearly all of the legislative proposals on his immense agenda. He ultimately expended far more political energy on this issue than anyone on his team anticipated, with bedeviling twists and turns on the path to major reform. The Johnson administration learned that major reform often hinges upon the formation of “strange bedfellow” alliances that are unstable and demand painful concessions. But they also believed immigrants and refugees served their larger visions for the nation and refused to let nativists use rhetoric against those groups to codify their ethnic, racial, and religious animus. Johnson recognized that failing to spearhead an immigration overhaul would significantly undercut his civil-rights, social-justice, and geopolitical goals. He upended xenophobic policies that had prevailed for half of a century, and his remarkable legislative achievement has had dramatic unforeseen consequences over time, including an unprecedented change in the country’s demographic landscape.

For all of its potential to reshape U.S social, economic, and political life, immigration reform has made most modern presidents decidedly uneasy. Franklin Roosevelt assiduously avoided clashes with immigration restrictionists in Congress during the 1930s, a period when draconian national-origins quotas barred entry for most newcomers and nativist demagogues blamed unemployment on past arrivals. Decades later, presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton pursued a cautious, reactive strategy toward immigration reform, one in which they responded opportunistically to congressional initiative on the issue. Some presidents have failed spectacularly, including Jimmy Carter, who pursued employer sanctions-amnesty legislation, and George W. Bush, who hoped for comprehensive immigration reform. Most recently, the incoming Obama administration shelved immigration reform when it became clear that nearly every Republican member of Congress (and some Democrats) would derail legislation. Obama eventually followed precedents set by Truman and Eisenhower, taking unilateral executive action to provide deportation relief and economic benefits to particular undocumented immigrants, most notably young people who entered the United States as children (and, later, their parents, a move currently blocked in the courts).

Reticence on this issue, let alone avoidance, will be all but impossible for the next president. Whoever moves into the White House in 2017 will be under enormous pressure to act decisively on immigrant policy. Executive action may offer Band-Aid measures, but it’s likely to satisfy few, being seen at worst as a crassly partisan, constitutionally suspect maneuver. Efforts at major immigration reform will be both daunting and nearly inescapable.

Amid this bleak outlook, Johnson’s story offers some hope. No other president was more closely identified with liberal immigration reform than John F. Kennedy. But when Johnson came into office, he initially made it clear to White House advisers that he wanted nothing to do with the issue, even though he had pledged to fulfill the agenda of his slain predecessor. For years, Johnson was whipsawed by immigration policy in the Senate. Democrats were deeply divided between southern conservatives opposed to any loosening of restrictions and northern liberals committed to dismantling racist national-origins quotas dating back to the 1920s; these policies reserved about 70 percent of visas for immigrants from just three countries: Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany. While Kennedy described immigration reform as “the most urgent and fundamental” item on his New Frontier agenda, he got nowhere on plans to alter U.S. immigration law due to potent opposition from conservative Democrats like Senator James Eastland of Mississippi and Representative Michael Feighan of Ohio, who controlled the immigration subcommittees of both houses. These lawmakers stood atop a bipartisan coalition that favored immigration restriction in the name of national security, job protection, and ethnic and racial hierarchy.

Numerous White House aides argued that the persistence of these national-origins quotas contradicted Johnson’s goals at home and abroad. They were inconsistent with his civil-rights agenda “to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based on race or color,” and they provided, as Senator Philip Hart of Michigan put it, “grist for the mills of Moscow and Peiping.” Eventually, Johnson became a late convert to the cause.

Johnson’s first State of the Union Address in 1964 buoyed the hopes of immigration reformers. In this speech, he outlined a civil-rights agenda that championed equal access to public facilities, eligibility for federal benefits, opportunities to vote, and “good public schools” for all children. “We must also lift by legislation the bars of discrimination against those who seek entry into our country,” he added. Legislators soon introduced an administration-backed bill that would increase annual immigration to 165,000 and create a preference system allocating 50 percent of visas to applicants with special occupational skills or education that benefited national economic interests. Remaining visas would be distributed to refugees and those with close family ties to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

One week after his address, Johnson held a press conference at the White House that included members of the House and Senate immigration subcommittees as well as a diverse set of reform advocates. As the restriction-minded Eastland and Feighan looked on uneasily, Johnson urged Congress to make U.S. immigration law more egalitarian. He reminded lawmakers that every president since Truman believed existing immigration policies hurt the nation in its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Johnson invoked the language of Kennedy’s inaugural address: Immigrants should be asked, “‘What can you do for our country?’” he said. “We ought to never ask,” he added, “‘in what country were you born?’” Leading congressional sponsors of the administration’s bill, including Senator Hart and Representatives Emanuel Celler of New York and Peter Rodino of New Jersey, praised the measure. When they finished their statements, Johnson caught Eastland off guard by asking him to address the assembled crowd. A surprised Eastland told the gathering he was prepared to look into the matter “very carefully and very expeditiously.” After a series of tense Oval Office meetings with Johnson in 1964, Eastland stunned Washington observers by agreeing to temporarily relinquish control of his subcommittee to none other than the freshman senator from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy. Johnson’s unusual influence over Eastland removed a formidable impediment to the Hart-Celler bill, but major legislative hurdles remained.

As chair of the House immigration subcommittee, Feighan made headlines in 1963 for charging that the CIA was infiltrated by Soviet spies and the actor Richard Burton should be banned from entering the country for having an “immoral” affair with Elizabeth Taylor. One year later, Feighan mobilized restrictionists in both parties to block Johnson’s immigration bill. He proposed a rival bill that promised to preserve preferences for northern and western Europeans, exclude nearly all Asians and Africans, favor immigrants with family ties, and maintain exclusions of Communists, socialists, and homosexual people. This maneuver hobbled all reform efforts until after the 1964 election.

After Johnson re-won the White House, his team renewed its push for immigration reform in 1965. Feighan and his allies held two months of hearings, peppering administration officials with questions about a new merit-based preference system and its potential impact on the number and diversity of newcomers. “How about giving the welfare of the American people first priority for a change?” he asked proponents of progressive reform.

Frustrated by Feighan’s roadblocks, Johnson led House Democrats to expand the immigration subcommittee with Johnson loyalists as crucial swing votes. Privately, Feighan told anti-immigrant lobbyists he enjoyed enough bipartisan backing to seriously limit radical policy change. Yet he understood that Johnson and reformers now had sufficient political momentum to bypass him, so he entered tough negotiations with the White House.

Eventually, Feighan and his allies agreed to dismantle the national-origins quota system and the so-called Asiatic Barred Zone—which excluded all Asians except the Japanese and Filipinos—if Johnson got rid of the administration’s emphasis on immigrant merit and skills. Feighan was convinced (incorrectly, as it turned out) that reserving most visas for immigrants with family ties to U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents would decidedly favor European applicants, thus maintaining the nation’s ethnic and racial makeup. The new preference system in the administration’s bill established four categories for family reunification, which were to receive nearly three-quarters of total annual visas. Spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens over 21 were granted admission without visa limits. The revised bill left roughly a quarter of annual visas for economic-based admissions and refugee relief.

Along with the legal preference system, the “non-quota status” of Mexican immigrants in particular and Latin Americans in general was a prominent concern for restrictionists in both houses of Congress. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other foreign-policy advisers denounced the proposal of a cap on Western Hemisphere immigration, arguing that such a step would damage relations with Central and South American countries. The administration’s stand on Western Hemisphere immigration came under withering attack in the Senate, however. Southern Democrats, led by Sam Ervin Jr. of North Carolina, threatened to stall action in the Senate immigration subcommittee unless concessions were made. Facing a major logjam, Johnson and pro-immigration lawmakers compromised with Ervin and his restriction-minded colleagues on an annual ceiling for Western Hemisphere immigration. As Johnson’s congressional liaison, Lawrence O’Brien, explained: “Listen, we’re not going to walk away from this because we didn’t get a whole loaf. We’ll take half a loaf or three-quarters of a loaf.”

Even by the standards of Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society juggernaut, the legislation that eventually passed—the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, known as INA—was monumental. Although few historians believe the law’s champions anticipated just how profoundly it would change the U.S. demographic landscape, Johnson seemed to recognize that its passage was especially significant—enough so that he oversaw the staging of an elaborate signing ceremony at the base of the Statue of Liberty. True to form, White House staffers were given strict instructions by the president to physically block political rivals like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller from the cameras assembled on the dais at Liberty Island. Hinting at the INA’s potential impact, Johnson predicted that the new law would “strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways.” Fifty years later, this sweeping immigration reform is being commemorated alongside the Voting Rights Act as one of the crowning—and most controversial—achievements of the hard-driving Johnson years.

Lyndon Johnson stands apart from his successors for shepherding landmark immigration reform through Congress. In many respects, he enjoyed exceptional advantages in championing the legislation, including its close association with his martyred predecessor and broader civil-rights reform; the near consensus of foreign-policy experts that reform served national geopolitical interests; a strong economy; an electoral landslide in 1964; and, concomitantly, huge partisan gains in both houses of Congress.

But the fact that even these favorable circumstances did not shield the Johnson administration from an arduous legislative struggle underscores the enormous political difficulty of immigration reform. The law ended a draconian national-origins quota system that was explicitly rooted in eugenicist notions of Northern and Western European superiority. Yet it took 20 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany for Congress to remove these barriers in American immigration law, showing how effectively Cold War nativists knitted together national-security and race-based fears. It’s equally revealing that, in the end, Johnson’s success depended significantly upon painful compromises with exactly these sorts of nativists. The INA defies simple characterization precisely because of this fact; it is an intricate statute that has created outcomes that were somewhat unexpected when the legislation was passed. This struggle is often hidden by the headlines, which are not wrong, but often rosy in hindsight. The INA marked a monumental watershed in U.S. immigration policy, but this kind of moment will not be easy to reproduce.


This essay is part of the First Year Project at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.