Let’s pause a moment to thank an under-appreciated Congress for one of its great accomplishments: the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which turned 50 on Saturday. The law ended the era of race-based immigration, a quota system based on national origin that overwhelmingly favored white European immigrants.
If you have ever wondered how and why this country had to stop looking at itself as the America of the Disney movies of the mid-1960s — the ones with Fred MacMurray and Keenan Wynn, where everyone seemed to be white and Midwestern and the men wore bowties to supper — you can look to the 1965 law, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, which greatly widened the gateway to immigrants from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, among other places.
The White House was host to a citizenship ceremony today to celebrate Hart-Celler. The speakers included the historian Taylor Branch, who quoted President Johnson’s stirring words at the signing ceremony at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. The bill, Johnson said, corrected the “harsh injustice” of national-origins quotas, erasing “a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.”
Mr. Branch said he counted himself among the historians who view Hart-Celler as “a third pillar of democratic fulfillment from the Civil Rights era, along with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
He placed the bill on a long, slow timeline of American course-correction and self-improvement, a step forward for a country that had learned to turn away from white supremacy, the ownership of human beings and the subjugation of women and was now confronting the many varieties of legal and institutional discrimination and forced inequality.
Hart-Celler affirmed, Mr. Branch said, “that the United States is founded not on any language or ethnic identity,” but rather on the idealism embodied in its founding document’s first three words: “We the people.”
Speaking to the 15 newly sworn citizens in the room, Branch said, “You are a testament to that ideal.” He noted that the bill gets little attention, is misunderstood by many and scorned by some. “There is no Martin Luther King of immigration reform,” he said, “nor any landmark anniversary on par with Selma and the March on Washington.”
But you could say Hart-Celler’s landmark anniversary is the one held in the heart of every immigrant on the day he or she takes the naturalization oath, rejecting old allegiances and joining the citizenry, full-fledged and proud.