The immigration law that inadvertently changed America

Such assurances did not sway conservative critics of the reform, but a last-minute change in the legislative language did alleviate their fears of a massive African and Asian influx. The original version of the 1965 Act, cosponsored by Senator Philip Hart of Michigan and Representative Emmanuel Celler of New York, both liberal Democrats, favored those immigrants whose skills were “especially advantageous” to the United States. Conservatives, led by Representative Michael Feighan, an Ohio Democrat, managed to change those priorities, giving visa preferences instead to foreigners who were seeking to join their families in the United States. Feighan, who chaired the House Immigration subcommittee, argued that a family-unification preference in immigration law would establish, in the words of a glowing profile in the American Legion magazine, “a naturally operating national-origins system,” because it would favor immigration from the northern and western European countries that at the time dominated the U.S. population.

Feighan and others were wrong. The heightened emphasis on family unification, rather than replicating the existing ethnic structure of the American population, led to the phenomenon of chain migration. The naturalization of a single immigrant from an Asian or African or Hispanic background opened the door to his or her brothers and sisters and their spouses, who in turn could sponsor their own brothers and sisters. Within a few decades, family unification had become the driving force in U.S. immigration, and it favored exactly those nationalities the critics of the 1965 Act had hoped to keep out, because those were the people most determined to move.