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The Third World Comes To The United States: 1965–90

June 2024
14min read

Like a good many pieces of social policy legislation, the Johnson-Reed Act began to be outdated from the moment it took effect. One of its objectives—cutting down on immigration overall—was brutally affected by the Great Crash. In the deepest year of the Depression, 1933, only 34,000 immigrants arrived to take their chances in a shuttered and darkened economy.

The totals did not rise dramatically in the next seven years, but they were important weather vanes of change. Fascist and Communist dictators, and World War II, gave new meaning to the word refugee and a new scale to misery. Millions of victims of history would soon be knocking at our closed gates.

First came those in flight from Hitler, primarily Jews. Their claim to asylum was especially powerful, considering the savagery that they were fleeing (and no one suspected yet that extermination would be the ultimate threat). This was a special kind of exodus, heavy with intellectual distinction. Thousands of scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and managers were hit by the Nazi purge of independent thinkers in every part of German life. “Hitler shakes the tree,” said one American arts administrator, “and I collect the apples.” The choicest apples included such men and women as Bruno Walter, George Szell, Lotte Lenya, Paul Klee, Thomas Mann, and Hannah Arendt in the arts and philosophy. In the sciences the lists included the physicists and mathematicians Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugene P. Wigner, and Enrico Fermi (in flight from Mussolini’s Italy) who shared in the creation of the atom bomb. The weapon was first proposed to the American government by the superstar of all the refugees, Albert Einstein.

World War II came—and more signals of change. In 1943 the sixty-one-year-old-Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, because China was now an American ally. The gesture was small, and the quota tiny (105), and it could hardly be said to mark the end of anti-Asian prejudice when 112,000 American citizens of Japanese descent were behind barbed wire. But it was a beginning, a breach in the wall. The horrible consequences of Hitler’s “racial science” were so clear that the philosophy of biological superiority underlying the national origins quota system received a fatal shock.

So the groundwork was laid for the future admission of nonwhite immigrants from the crumbling European empires in Africa and Asia—especially when, as it turned out, many of them were highly educated specialists.

Then the Cold War produced its worldwide tragedies and shake-ups, its expulsions and arrests and civil wars and invasions in China, Cuba, Korea, Indochina, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Central Africa, the Middle East, Central America. A world in conflict was a world once more ready to swarm.

And in the United States an economic boom was reopening the job market, Attitudes toward immigration were changing as well. The children of the great 1890-1914 migration had come of age. They were powerful in the voting booths; political scientists credited them with a major role in supporting the New Deal. And the best-selling writers and dramatists among them were delving the richness of their experience in a way that wiped out the stereotypes of the old restrictionism.

So the walls began to crumble. First there were special enactments to clear the way for the wives and children of servicemen who had gotten married while overseas. Some 117,000 women and children entered under a War Brides Act of 1945- 5,000 of them Chinese. In 1948 came the Displaced Persons Act, spurred by the misery of millions of homeless Eastern Europeans who had survived deportations, forced labor, bombings, and death camps. These were countries with the smallest national origins quotas. Congress did not repeal them, but it permitted borrowing against the future, so that at the end of the act’s four-year life, for example, Poland’s quota was mortgaged by half until 2000, and Eatvia’s until 2274. About 205,000 refugees entered under this law.

An attempt to overhaul the system in 1952 got entangled in the fear-ridden climate of McCarthyism, and the resulting McCarran-Walter Act kept the national origins quotas. Harry Truman vetoed it as “utterly unworthy of our traditions and ideals … our basic religious concepts, our belief in the brotherhood of man.” It was passed over his veto, but time was on his side. Special emergency relief acts admitted refugees from China’s civil war and Hungary’s failed anti-Soviet uprising. Those who left Castro’s Cuba needed no special relief, since there were as yet no limits on migration within the hemisphere, but they did get special help with resettlement. All told, in the 1950s immigration added up to some 2,500,000.

It was a quality migration, lured by the promise of American wages and the consumer goods made visible in the films and television shows that America exported. And jet travel now put the promised land only hours away. Foreign governments ruefully watched their elites disappearing into the “brain drain” to the United States. Between 1956 and 1965 approximately 7,000 chemists, 35,000 engineers, 38,000 nurses, and 18,000 physicians were admitted. Between 1952 and 1961 Britain lost 16 percent of its Ph.D.s, half to the United States. Comparable losses were even more critical for developing states in the Third World or small European countries.

Hitler shakes the tree,” said one American arts administrator, “and I collect the apples.”

Yet there was still room at the bottom, for workers in the “service industries” and especially in the harvest fields of the Southwest. In 1951 growers got Congress to enact “temporary worker” programs that brought in thousands of Mexican braceros. Many who received green cards remained without authorization, joining imprecise numbers of illegal immigrants known as wetbacks after presumably swimming the Rio Grande to elude the Border Patrol. There were legal ways to stay too.

All we need is a gringuita So that we can get married And after we get our green card We can get a divorce Long live all the wetbacks.

So ran a popular Mexican ballad. Authorized and undocumented Mexicans alike became part of an enlarging Hispanic population, fed by migrants from Central America and the Caribbean. Great numbers of Puerto Ricans were part of it, but they did not count as immigrants because of the island’s special status.

In 1965 the patched old system was finally discarded, and a brand-new act was passed. It mirrored the equal-rights spirit of the 1960s, modified by the political compromises that float bills through the riptides of congressional debate. The national origins quotas vanished, but there was no return to the wide-open days. Instead” new quotas were established with three primary targets: reuniting families, opening the gates to refugees, and attracting skill and talent.

The new act mandated an annual limit of 170,000 immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere, and 120,000 from within. These 290,000 were to be admitted under seven “preference” quotas. First and second preferences—40 percent of the total—were saved for unmarried grown sons and daughters of citizens and legally admitted alien residents. (Spouses, minor children, and parents of citizens came in free.) The third preference, 10 percent, went to “members of the professions and scientists and artists of exceptional ability.” The fourth, 10 percent, went to adult married children of U.S. citizens, and the fifth, 24 percent, to brothers and sisters of citizens. The sixth, 10 percent, was held for “skilled labor in great demand” and “unskilled workers in occupations for which labor is in short supply,” and the final preference, 6 percent, was for specifically defined refugees.

As Lyndon Johnson said when he signed the act at the base of the Statue of Liberty in October 1965, the new law was not “revolutionary.” Yet, he added, it “repairs a deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American life…. The days of unlimited immigration are past. But those who come will come because of what they are—not because of the land from which they sprung.”

The Immigration Act of 1965 was born in the year of Great Society programs and the Voting Rights Act. It fulfilled some of its authors’ expectations and also carried some surprises—perhaps because 1965 was itself a turningpoint year that also witnessed urban race riots and the first heavy and expensive commitments to combat in Vietnam. Johnson was wrong in one respect: The law’s effects have been revolutionary, and are still with us every day. The twenty-five years of its existence have produced a major demographic turnaround.

Europe, the prime provider of new Americans for three centuries, fell off to little more than a 10 percent share of total immigration. The bulk of it now comes from Asia and the Western Hemisphere. In the decade from 1961 to 1970 some 3,321,000 immigrants arrived, and 1,123,000, less than 40 percent, were of European origin. Of 4,493,000 newcomers in the period 1971–80, only about 801,000 were Europeans. Between 1981 and 1990, when immigration totaled 7,338,000, the European contribution was only 761,550.

What of the other 85 to 90 percent? Of the 1,588,000 arrivals in the 1980s, 1,634,000 came from Asia (somewhat over one-third), 1,930,000 from North and South America, and 80,779 from Africa. The five major contributing nations were, in order, Mexico (640,300), the Philippines (355,000), Cuba (265,000), Korea (268,000), and China, both mainland and Taiwan (237,800).

Of the roughly 7,300,000 legal immigrants of 1981-90, 2,700,000 came from Asia, 3,600,000 from the Americas. The leaders—with numbers rounded—were Mexico at 1,656,000, the Philippines at 549,000, Vietnam with 281,000, the two Chinas with 98,000 and 346,000, and Korea with 334,000. Other heavy contributors were the Caribbean nations, with together 872,000; India with about 250,000, Laos at 112,000, Iran with some 116,000, Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama) with 468,000, and African nations with 177,000.

The rising Third World totals had two sources. One was the nature of the 1965 law itself, especially the fifth-preference brother-andsister quota. Legally admitted and naturalized immigrants brought in their siblings, who went through the same cycle and then brought in their kin, and so on in a family tree of ever-spreading branches. When Congress endorsed family reunification, it had in mind the American 1950s model of two parents and two or three children. What it sot was extended clans of Asians and Latins.

The other root of Third World influx was the bloody history of the 1970s and 1980s. The fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam in 1975 unleashed floods of refugees who were a special responsibility of the United States. Within the first six months we admitted some 130,000, and many more thousands under special quota exemptions in succeeding years. By 1990, counting their children born here, some 586,000 people of Indochinese origin were living in the United States.

The refugee problem was worldwide. It raised issues of what countries should share the burdens of admission. It sharpened agonizing questions of when repatriation might be justified: when a family was actually fleeing for its life and when it was only looking for a chance to go where air-conditioned cars and color television sets were the visible rewards of hard work (as if both motives could not coexist).

Congress made its own tentative answer with the first major modification of the 1965 law, the Refugee Act of 1980. It set up new offices within the federal government for handling refugee affairs and reshuffled the quota system. The old seventh (refugee) preference with its 17,400 slots was abolished in favor of an annual quota of up to 50,000 refugees that could be exceeded for “grave, humanitarian reasons” by the President in consultation with Congress. The overall limit was dropped to 270,000 as a tradeoff. A refugee was officially defined as a person who could not go home again by reason of a “well-founded fear of persecution” on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion.

And as if to mock the effort to set boundaries around social revolutions, President Carter’s signature was hardly dry on the act when 125,000 new Cuban refugees were knocking at the gates, released by Castro through the port of Mariel. Carter declared that he would admit them with open arms and an open heart, a sentiment not fully shared by some residents of the South Florida communities where the Marielitos at first clustered.

Society had changed greatly since the unstructured and unsupervised days of mass arrivals at Ellis Island (long deserted and shuttered). The newest refugees did not find unskilled jobs and low-rent tenements waiting for them. It was the age of big government and bureaucratic organization. With the U.S. Treasury providing funds, and church and social service agencies the personnel, programs were launched to help with health care, schooling, and other roads to citizenship. Until the immigrants dispersed themselves around the country, they were lodged in temporary camps, some of them former Army bases. What had been left between 1890 and 1914 to friends, families, padrones, landsleit , and political machines was now managed under guidelines set in Washington.

Washington’s welcome was not universal. Cold War politics infiltrated refugee policy in the 1980s. Refugees from Communist nations were welcomed, but those from countries officially deemed “democratic,” like El Salvador, got shorter shrift. So did those who were “merely” trying to escape harsh but non-Communist regimes or grinding poverty, like the Haitians. The Immigration and Naturalization Service held thousands of them in detention while their petitions for asylum were suspiciously reviewed. Nonetheless, thousands of Central Americans managed to escape the net and find work—usually low-paid and menial—and to melt into the underground economy of the Hispanic communities in Florida and New York.

General statements about this newest great migration are dangerous because it is tempting to lump its members together by race and nationality, as the old Dillingham Report did, rather than by class, education, experience, income, or other categories. To describe Colombian dentists and Mexican cotton pickers as “Hispanics” or Korean chemical engineers and Pakistani nurses’ aides as “Asian” suggests nonexistent similarities.

But some broad observations fit most of the new immigrants: They get to this country swiftly and by air, they quickly fall into the consumerist culture familiar to them through television at home, and they are quickly integrated into the bureaucratic structure of entitlements that characterize life in the United States today.

Beyond that, all-embracing descriptions strain the facts. The Vietnamese, for example, include English-speaking professionals who worked for American corporations, Catholics educated during the period of French control, and people from the bottom rung: in the words of one writer, “cosmopolites, bourgeois provincials, and dirt-poor peasants … gifted intellectuals, street-wise hustlers and unworldly fisherfolk and farmers.” The Koreans most visible to New Yorkers are the hardworking grocers who seem to have taken over the retail fruit and vegetable business completely from the Italians. But a survev shows that more than a third of all Koreans in the United States have completed four years of college.

Recent years have witnessed a new restrictionism, but it is based on some very old alliances.

Filipino immigrants are found in hospitals, as doctors and nurses and sometimes behind the counter in the basement cafeterias; Indians in the newsstands of New York City and likewise doing advanced biochemical or genetic research in its university laboratories. Middle Eastern Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, are heavily concentrated in Detroit, and many work in the American auto industry at both shop and managerial levels. Israeli and Soviet Jewish immigrants—some of them jobless Ph.D.s—drive taxis in Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York—and work as engineers in defense industries in the Southwest. Puerto Ricans, other Latinos, and Chinese fill the places in New York’s declining garment industry once held by Italians and Jews.

Within the communities of Cambodians, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Iranians, Russians, Israelis, Irish, and Puerto Ricans the old saga goes on as children learn new ways and move to new, unexpected disruptive rhythms. But in education the effect of the new immigration has been dramatically different from what it was prior to World War I. Then the public schools were on the rise and confident of their power and duty to unify all children behind the undisputedly correct symbols and rites of Americanism.

In the mood of the 1970s, however, things changed. Emphasis on ethnic pride and the power of the civil rights revolution dictated a new approach. Immigrant children were no longer to be thrown into English-speaking classrooms to sink or swim. Instead bilingual programs would help them in transit to a new system without their being stigmatized as stupid because they could not understand the teacher. Going further, some educators argued that preparing children for a multicultural society required exposure to many “life-styles” and building the self-esteem of “minority” students through appreciation of their own languages, customs, and cultures. So some states mandated bilingual (usually Hispanic-English) programs into the curriculum at every level.

Whatever the virtues of the theory (debatable in the light of evidence), bilingualism provoked a strong counterreaction, and by 1990 some organizations were insisting that new immigrants were not working hard enough to learn the common tongue that was so valuable a social binding agency. An English-only drive got under way to designate English, by constitutional amendment, if necessary, as the official language of the United States.

In actual fact, Spanish (and other language) newspapers, television stations, religious congregations, and social clubs were a re-enactment of what had gone before. In the early 190Os there had been a vigorous immigrant press, which, in time, died out. But the English-only movement drew strength from a sense of increasing discomfort over the increasing numbers of immigrants, a reawakening of the old idea that a “flood” of “unassimilated” newcomers was pouring in.

Anew restrictionism was born, featuring some familiar alliances. Middle- and upper-class taxpayers believed that the immigrants, concentrated in certain areas, were a burden on schools, hospitals, and welfare and lawenforcement agencies. On the other hand, there were workers who were convinced that the immigrants took away lowlevel jobs that were rightfully theirs or depressed wages by working in sweatshops or permitting the employment of their underage children. Black Americans tended especially to believe that material assistance that had been denied to them was going to the refugees. They were now the bypassed “old Americans.”

Resentment was fed by the widespread admiration of the academic and business success of Asian Americans, who were, in great numbers, advancing up the professional scale. They were described by some sociologists as a “model minority”—their delinquents and failures overlooked while the spotlight fell on those who succeeded.

A dread of the unknown and uncountable hovered over lawmakers. Undocumented aliens came in from the Mexico in annual numbers estimated from a few hundred thousand to many millions a year. The oft-repeated statement that we were “losing control of our borders” had a powerful psychological kick in a time of multiple American troubles. Had we, in fact, reached the limit our power to offer asylum? Was there truth in what Sen. Alan Simpson said in 1982: “We have to live within limits. The nation wants to be compassionate but we have been compassionate beyond our ability to respond”?

The evidence of the actual economic effect of immigration is inconclusive. The contribution of immigrant specialists to a high-tech economy has to be considered. Every working-age, well-trained immigrant who enters the country becomes a free resource, not schooled at American cost—a dividend from the brain drain. Even the “low-end” immigrants, including the “illegals” (or undocumented), may contribute as much in sales and other taxes and in purchasing power as they take out in services and schooling. The case has also been made that the undocumented aliens, fearful of discovery, rarely claim benefits due them. Thousands of employers likewise insist that without immigrants they could not staff the service industries or harvest the fields. And the falling American birthrate suggests to some economists the possibility of labor shortages in the next century. They say that we can easily absorb half a million or so legal immigrants annually, perhaps more—though of what kind and for how long are left to debate.

But while debate went on, Congress did make a second change in the 1965 law. The Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986 tried to deal with two much-disputed issues. One was how to identify and count the unmeasured number of undocumented aliens already in the country without intrusive violations of civil liberties. The other was how to enforce immigration limits without a gigantic and costly expansion of the hard-pressed Immigration and Naturalization Service. The solution to the first problem was dealt with through an amnesty for pre-1982 immigrants; the second, by turning employers into enforcement agents. They would be “sanctioned” by fines if they hired undocumented aliens. The bill sparked bitter controversy in its career in three separate Congresses before final passage. Mexican-American organizations, for example, argued that employers, rather than risk sanctions, would simply refuse to hire Hispanic-looking or -sounding men and women. Employers complained about the cost and difficulty of checking credentials. But in the end a coalition for passage was established. It is still too early to tell how well the law is working.

It is not too early, however, to make some general predictions about the future course of the peopling of America. Immigration on the current scale, plus natural increase, will over time change the character of the people who inhabit these United States. Hispanic-descended men and women alone now constitute a little more than 22,000,000 in a population of about 248,000,000. By 2010 they are expected to number 39,300,000 in an overall population of about 282,000,000. In other words, their increase will account for 28 percent of the total population growth in that period. Another set of census projections for the period from 1990 to 2025 sees the white population declining from 84.3 to 75.6 percent, the black population percentage rising from 12.4 to 14.6, and the percentage of “other races” almost doubling, from 3.4 to 6.5. In some urban areas where the current crop of new immigrants clusters, the terms nonwhite and minority are no longer synonyms; in Los Angeles County, for example, only 15 percent of public school children are white.

We began with a reference to the manytongued New York that Isaac Jogues found in 1643. It is appropriate to return for a look some 350 years afterward. The old tale continues. “Young Immigrant Wave Lifts New York Economy,” runs a recent story in The New York Times . The paper found that the 2,600,000 foreign-born residents of the city (about one-third of the total population) had a positive effect. Their addition to the ranks of workers, small business owners, and consumers had probably kept New York from becoming “boarded up.” No fewer than eighteen countries had sent 5,000 or more people to the hard-pressed metropolis from 1980 to 1986. At least 114 languages are spoken in the city’s school systems. In one Queens school a sign directs visitors to register in English, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish. Among those photographed or interviewed for the article were a Serbian-speaking garment worker, a Romanian technician in a hematology laboratory, and an Albanian building owner who began as a superintendent.

And as in New York, so also in the other great cities of America in the 1990s—in Los Angeles (44 percent of adults foreign-born) and Miami (70 percent foreign-born), in Chicago, Dallas, Boston, in the ten largest cities of the land where increases in immigrant population offset the economic impact of the loss of other residents—and in the neighborhoods across the country where the new immigrants are working and raising their American children. For them the streets may not be paved with gold, but the dreams still glisten. What memories they will give their children, what gods they will worship, what leaders they will follow, what monuments they will create are all part of history yet to be written. It seems safe to say that, like the English, Scots, Irish, Germans, Swedes and Finns, Greeks, Poles, Italians, Hungarians, and Russians before them, they will neither “melt” into some undistinctive alloy nor, on the other hand, remain aloof and distinct from one another. Some kind of functional American mosaic will emerge. It is the historic way; the great Amazon that Melville described as America’s noble bloodstream flows on undisturbed, into a new century.

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