February 4, 2015

50 years later, Americans give thumbs-up to immigration law that changed the nation

Where Immigrants Came FromAs Washington once again engages in a heated political battle over immigration policy, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how much the country and its politics have changed since passage of the law that largely created today’s system.

Fifty years ago, the Immigration and Nationality Act dramatically changed the makeup of the country by ending a quota system based on national origins in favor of one that took into account occupational skills, relatives living in the U.S. and political-refugee status.

Despite the long-term impact of the 1965 law and the highly partisan tone the issue has taken on today, immigration was not highly divisive a half-century ago, and the American public paid it little heed. Of course, a lot was going on in 1965 to occupy the public’s attention – Vietnam and civil rights, to name just two mega-issues.

Nonetheless, Gallup polls that year found less than 1% of the public naming immigration as the most important problem facing the nation. And, by the end of 1965, the Harris poll found just 3% naming immigration revision as the legislation most important to them. (Back then, Medicare legislation was cited most often – by 28%.)

While Americans were much quieter about immigration back then, the public was divided about the right level of immigration. A June 1965 Gallup poll found that 39% preferred maintaining present levels, almost as many said they should be decreased (33%), and only a few (7%) favored increased immigration.

But in the end, a majority of the public approved of changing the laws so that people would be admitted on the basis of their occupational skills rather than their country of origin. And after the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, fully 70% said they favored the new law.

An approval score like that was possible because, unlike today, there were almost no partisan differences on the issue. A mid-1965 Gallup poll found 54% of Republicans and 49% of Democrats favoring the concept of admittance based on job skills. Support was only modestly lower among two population groups: less well-educated Americans (44%) and Southerners (40%)

One can only wonder what reactions would have been had Americans known how much the new law would change the face and complexion of their country in years to come. In 1960, the foreign-born share of the population was just 5%. By 2013, that figure had more than doubled to 13%.

Even more dramatically, the ethnic composition of immigrants has changed. In 1960, the overwhelming share of immigrants were of European origin and few were Latin-American/Caribbean or Asian. By 2013, a census survey found half of immigrants were Latin-American/Caribbean and 27% were Asian, while the European share of the immigrant population had fallen to a mere 13%.

First- and Second-Generation ImmigrantsLooking ahead, those changes will become even more pronounced. Based on census data, the Pew Research Center projects that the first- and second-generation immigrant segment of the American population will swell to 37% by 2050, compared with 15% back in 1965. This roughly matches the first- and second-generation immigrant percentage of the public at the turn of the 20th century, which was a high point in American immigration.

Indeed, immigrants now come from different parts of the world, and they make up a larger share of the American public. This has taken some getting used to on the part of the American public. In the 1990s, by wide margins, Americans saw immigrants as burdens on society rather than as strengthening the country through their hard work. Also, many thought that the growing number of newcomers would threaten traditional American values and customs.

Immigrants Strengthening Our CountryBut slowly, opinions have begun to change over the course of the past two decades. By 2014, a healthy 57% majority had come to the opposite point of view, saying that immigrants strengthened the country through their hard work; and just 35% now say that the increasing number of immigrants is threatening American values.

Given these shifts, it’s not surprising that 50 years after the Immigration and Nationality Act, the public’s bottom line about the law is a thumbs-up. When polled about the desired level of legal immigration, Americans today give a decidedly more positive response than they did back in 1965. Most say either keep immigration at present levels (31%) or increase it (25%), while a minority (36%) say the level of legal immigration should be decreased.

It is important to recognize that a heated debate about immigration these days, at least from the public’s point of view, is not about the level of immigration, or where people come from, but how to keep out unauthorized immigrants and what to do with those who are now here.

The distinction between how Americans think about legal and illegal immigration is frequently lost in today’s debate. Gallup recently reported that six-in-ten Americans were dissatisfied with “current levels” of immigration. But in its reporting, Gallup went on to point out that its “survey question does not distinguish between legal and illegal immigration.” Even so, a follow-up question found only 39% wanting less immigration – a record low. The polling organization further added that “the rhetoric of many outspoken politicians on this [issue] … often does not distinguish between legal or non-legal status.”

Topics: Immigration, Unauthorized Immigration, Immigration Attitudes, Immigration Trends, Migration

  1. Photo of Andrew Kohut

    is founding director of Pew Research Center.


  1. TC2 years ago

    Most Americans have no clue how many immigrants (legal or illegal) are entering and staying. They also don’t realize that their a more people coming in to work illegally than are admitted on legal work visas. They also don’t realize that most legal permanent residents are getting green card status, not based upon work skills, but based solely upon being related to a green card holder or citizen. They don’t know the law or the visa allocations related to it. In other words, most Americans have no clue what they are holding an opinion on. It is nice that they are so favorable towards immigrants (which is what this polling data really shows us) but I doubt even a small fraction know enough about the law itself to give it a thumbs up or thumbs down.

  2. Mary Volenec2 years ago

    Why don’t we consider those who have fled to our country as refugees? Obviously there are political and social concerns that arise from the countries to the south of the US… We look at refugees from other parts of the world with such empathy, why not those who have successfully arrived here despite the odds? And these people come to us looking for opportunities not handouts: a humane response to immigration whether legal or not, is indicated.

  3. Buck Mast3 years ago

    In the past immigrants (legal) came to America and had a strong desire to become an American.Most of the immigrants to America today bring their culture and customs to America and demand that America change to conform to their culture and customs.If any immigrant does not like the way America operates,then they should not come here

    1. brett2 years ago

      Immigration should be more equal on where you come from Europe south America and asia. Never should one location so dominate. I do think immigration is too high in general but not way too high. Illegal immigration is way way too high in that it should be zero but outnumbers legal immigration. I do think we have a right to cut down immigration or declare moratorium until we have a better economic situation. Hopefully Mexico can help their own people out more and their people can stay there. It’s the levels of immigration that are too high not that immigration in itself is a bad thing.

  4. Ann Bayer3 years ago

    Our country should welcome hard working immigrants who are willing, ready, & able to be productive law abiding members of American society, IF our economy has employment vacancies.

    I do not currently see that.

    We MUST refuse entry to those who do not meet that criteria & deport those who are here illegally. No excuses. You do not reward bad behaviour, which is what is happening when for example, a pregnant woman enters this country illegally & gives birth, to a then American citizen. That needs to change. If a pregnant woman is here legally & gives birth, then the baby has American citizenship. If a child is born here to a woman who is here illegally, then citizenship is denied.

    I am fed up with people breaking the law & being rewarded for their illegal behaviour. First & foremost it is wrong. Second it is unfair, a slap in the face to those who come here legally.

    As for the argument that many illegals take jobs that Americans don’t want, I guarantee you that if government assistance programs are removed, Americans will “kill” to take those jobs.

    We have created a society that is lazy, gluttonous, and believes they are owed everything.

    Where once we had a society filled with people who appreciated the opportunities America had to offer- and were willing to work hard, sacrifice, go without so they could get an education, own a home, maybe a car- now we have a society of people who believes America must provide them with a home, education, job, health care, food, free phones, Internet service, a computer, & their children with all of the above plus free day care along with breakfast, lunch, & soon dinner!
    Worse, we give all of the above including the right to vote, to people who have broken the law by entering this country illegally.

    America provides all or much of the above to citizens & illegal aliens without even requiring its citizens to serve in the armed forces or volunteer to help those in need. Remember what JFK said,

    “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

    Volunteer? Oops, we don’t need volunteers to help people in need anymore, because those in need are now provided with more than many families can afford for themselves, all at taxpayer expense!

    America is no longer a great country of free, proud, hard working, independent, & God fearing people. Now we are a country of lazy gluttons whose country will easily be surpassed by people from other nations who are as “hungry” as the earlier immigrants to America were almost 250 years ago.

  5. Claudia Splick Larson3 years ago

    PEW you need to take a second look at WHO you are polling. Try to keep it to US citizens of ALL colors.
    Exit polls were unequivocal. More than 3 in 4 voters cited immigration as an important factor in their vote, believed that U.S. workers should get priority for jobs, and opposed the President’s plans for executive amnesty.

    28% of likely voters in a recent Pew Research Center survey say they approve of Obama’s handling of issue, while 58% say they disapprove.

    77% of Americans want illegal aliens sent home 

    77% of-americans-want-illegal-aliens-sent-home

    77% said they want the illegals returned americanthinker.com/blog/2014/07…


77% want illegals sent home

  6. DonMcFarland3 years ago

    There might be some interest in the background of those polled. For example, it might reflect that the background/ethnicity/race/etc. might skew the polling in favor of more immigrants. How about some clarity on this issue?

  7. Toby Miller3 years ago

    Good to see some of these figures, but I fear that racism and intra-class rivalry are relevant to negative emotions about immigration, given the horrendous nativism evident in so many people’s attitudes to Latin@s.

    1. John Wentworth3 years ago

      The 1965 law, and the 1990 law, guide our immigration policies. Legal immigration to the United States is based upon : the reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills that are needed in the U.S. economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity. Do the legal immigrants match those criteria? I do know that Irish immigrants made up the early diversity candidates, and there didn’t seem to be a shortage. Pew should try matching up the stated goals of the law and the actual results.

  8. Robert Steele3 years ago

    As I’m sure the branding of racism is coming from the comments I am about to make let me shut it down. This has nothing to do with race. Read the 1965 law and you will see it was meant to help fill jobs that we did not have the skills to do. Not manual labor work that is the foundation of the middle class. Example of this is autoworkers. We can fill these jobs with our labor force. We do not need immigrant work force to fill those jobs. Through poor application of the law large numbers of those shrinking jobs went to immigrants. It. Was meant for skills we could not fill. Another example is our current medical school situation. We have our citizens not getting into medical school because a foreign citizen under this law gets preferential treatment if they will do residency and so many years practice in country. Some stay but a great msny take the free schooling and return to their home.country. The application of this law has been a travesty and has done more to wipe out the hopes and dreams of the middle class than any other law.

    African Americans should be up in arms about it because I feel they are the ones who are most affected. They are kept from advancing by newcomers to this country not because the newcomers work harder they have been given an unfair advantage by the United States Government.

    1. Nelson3 years ago

      How about we eliminate laws that prevent foreigners from living and working here. Then nobody will have an unfair advantage.

      1. Hillary3 years ago

        Are you being sarcastic when you ask that question? Because, eliminating the plethora of illegal immigrants who first, did not have the skills the laws required, and second, knew that, therefore snuck in, because, nobody tells them what to do, country’s sovereignty be dam-ned! And third, have done the opposite of creating more diversity in the immigrant and native population. And that last part is the most outrageous, because I am dumbfounded when the illegal immigrant group boasts and brags loudly that they are now the fastest growing and largest group of not just immigrants, but people in general in this country. …. Um, so much for diversity. So much for skilled labor. So much for respect for the rule of law. Because: Ain’t nobody gonna tell those anarchists what to do.

        So, YES, we absolutely should send them all back home and make them get on line in order to get that diversity and skill the 1965 law promised us.