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.”