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A little-known law that radically changed America

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 on Liberty Island in New York Harbor.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 on Liberty Island in New York Harbor.AP/file

One of the oldest impulses in American history is the desire to start anew — to find a better place to work, to live, to raise a family. It is the basic premise of nearly all that has happened here since the Mayflower dropped anchor at Provincetown, before deciding that Plymouth was slightly better and moving one more time.

Yet freedom here isn’t universal. As Donald Trump made clear over the summer, Mexican immigrants without the proper paperwork are not all that welcome. Trump in no way damaged his standing by saying so — quite the opposite. Indeed, immigration is already a central theme in the presidential race.

As with most of our big problems, there is a lot of pre-history to sort through right here in New England.

Fifty years ago this month, the country was in the final stages of a revolution in immigration policy. Although less celebrated than the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts that preceded it, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 changed the nation forever. When the act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on Oct. 3, he chose an appropriate location — the foot of the Statue of Liberty. But its path to that hallowed ground had wound through the neighborhoods of Boston.

When Boston was founded, it was celebrated as a beacon of light in a dark world; but it turned out to be a lighthouse that flashed intermittently. It was understood from the start that Massachusetts Bay would be a refuge for like-minded religious thinkers, fleeing persecution in Europe, but quite willing to ban those it did not want. That’s why Massachusetts has always needed Rhode Island, as a kind of septic tank (Cotton Mather called it a “latrina”) to send disagreeable people into.


With the passage of time, more people demanded a share of the region’s limited space. At first, there were exotic stragglers like the Jews who settled in Newport in the 17th century. Then, the trickle turned into a flood, from the middle of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th, as great waves arrived from the northern British isles, Ireland, Germany, French Canada, Italy, and Portugal. Some of those early immigrants made good (Peter Faneuil and Paul Revere were the sons of Frenchmen). But most led less exalted lives, especially after the Industrial Revolution swept through, powerfully, creating entirely new cities like Lowell and Lawrence, and new extremes of wealth and poverty.


Throughout the 19th century, as it surged, Boston became an important port of entry for immigrants, and a far more diverse city. In the 1890 census, 35 percent of Bostonians were foreign-born. Even higher concentrations could be found in Lowell (44 percent) and Fall River (50 percent). In varying percentages, that story was repeated across the region, in Lewiston and Manchester and Waterbury and Pawtucket and hundreds of smaller places, where foreign languages could be heard in the streets, non-English newspapers were printed, and immigrant credit associations lent money to immigrant enterprises. New England became a New Ireland, a New Quebec, a New Italy, and much more.

Inevitably, the new demographics brought new politics, as immigrants and their children began to vote their own interests. The first Irish-born mayor of Boston, Hugh O’Brien, was elected in 1884. One of his successors was John Francis Fitzgerald, the celebrated Honey Fitz, who became both mayor and congressman during a long and colorful career. The son of Irish immigrants, Fitzgerald was born in 1863. But his story helped shape passage of the law a century later.

Fitzgerald’s grandson and namesake, John F. Kennedy, enjoyed an even more storied political career. In the 1950s, while still a senator, Kennedy began to show serious interest in immigration. He had first been elected as a congressman from the old 11th district, which included the North End, Charlestown, Cambridge, and Somerville. The district teemed with different groups, with some neighborhoods, like the North End, full of Italians who were displacing the Irish who had lived there in Honey Fitz’s day. To be indifferent to their concerns was to be indifferent to reelection.


At the same time, New England also had a lively tradition of opposition to immigration. In the late 19th century, many local Republicans wanted to restrict the flood of new migrants coming from Southern and Eastern Europe, for fear that they were unassimilable. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was a case in point. While progressive in some ways, he supported the Immigration Restriction League, a prominent lobbying group founded in Boston in 1884. The league helped to shape legislation that favored immigrants from Northern Europe, and restricted access for everyone else. That legislation finally passed in 1924, and barricaded the gates for more than four decades. The Irish were safe, but Italians, Portuguese, and Jews felt the new restrictions.

It was a battle for the future and soul of the country. Honey Fitz resisted Lodge’s efforts to require literacy tests for immigrants (according to tradition, he persuaded President Grover Cleveland to veto such tests in 1897). When they ran against each other for the Senate in 1916, Lodge won; but in 1952, their grandsons fought for the same seat, and JFK defeated Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., with help from Irish- and Italian-American voters.


In the year JFK was elected, the McCarran-Walter Act was drafted by Congress, which largely kept in place the restrictions of 1924, and added new restrictions against left-wing “subversives.” Truman vetoed that bill, but Congress overturned it, and the quotas stayed on the books.

Kennedy began to chip away at the injustices of the bill, in speeches and writings that celebrated American diversity. In 1958, in collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League, he published a short book, “A Nation of Immigrants.” Less renowned than “Profiles in Courage,” it nevertheless staked an important position for the debate to come. Kennedy’s election to the presidency two years later gave him an immense platform from which to revisit the issue.

This he began to do in the summer of 1963. He sent Congress a recommendation that it write a new immigration law that “reflects in every detail the principles of equality and human dignity to which our nation subscribes.”

He didn’t live to see the bill passed, but Lyndon Johnson ably converted the new thinking into legislative reality. In January 1965, in one of the most sweeping State of the Union messages ever delivered, LBJ declared his intention to pass “an immigration law based on the work a man can do and not where he was born or how he spells his name.”

Johnson asked a freshman senator, Edward M. Kennedy, to floor manage the bill. Kennedy was obviously carrying the torch of his older brother, but he brought his own special qualities to the task. He could remember handing out leaflets in the North End as a 14-year-old, during his older brother’s first run for Congress in 1946, and he recalled the passion of his grandfather, who “believed that fair and just immigration policies, for the people of all nations, were very important to our country, and often expressed this to his grandchildren.”


There were many obstacles to navigate, including Boston Irish who were not eager to see floods of new immigrants, and conservative Southern senators. Kennedy’s memoir, “True Compass,” recounts a meeting with Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, during which Kennedy received a crucial committee assignment for immigration reform. While asking him all about the “Eye-talians of Boston,” Eastland distributed a great deal of scotch, most of which Kennedy was able to pour into his plants when the ancient senator was not looking.

The bill passed overwhelmingly in the House (320 to 70) and the Senate (76 to 18), with strong bipartisan support, unimaginable today. The law discarded national origins, and the preferential treatment given to light-skinned immigrants from northern Europe. It substantially raised quotas (which had been limited to about 100 a year) from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, and raised them, in many cases, to around 20,000 a year. Special categories were also created to help those with relatives in the United States (which benefited Italians and Portuguese) and those who could bring expertise of value (which benefited everyone).

The new openness to Asia felt just for many reasons, including the rising urgency of the Vietnam War. It seemed absurd to only permit 100 Vietnamese a year to emigrate at a time when the United States was pouring billions of dollars into its strategic interest there. From all of the many parts of Asia, and from the rest of the world as well, a vast new tide of immigration began. It also opened a new chapter in migration from the Caribbean — with profound effects on baseball, among other areas of American life (Manny Ramirez emigrated from the Dominican Republic at the age of 13).

The act was not perfect, of course. It permitted forms of discrimination against homosexuals that stayed on the books until 1990. But it transformed the United States over its first five decades, and its effects are far from finished.

Certainly, the act’s impact was deep in the city that inspired it. Boston became much more of an immigrant city again, and that trend is deepening. It has the sixth-highest percentage of foreign-born residents among major US cities and enjoys particularly lively representation from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and China. Surprisingly, the North End, once an immigrant enclave, has become the section of the city with the smallest proportion of foreign born (11 percent).

Perhaps a senator or president will some day emerge from one of the city’s newer enclaves and celebrate his or her ancestors, from Hanoi or Port-au-Prince or Hong Kong. If so, nothing could be more Bostonian. At the end of his classic, “Boston’s Immigrants,” Oscar Handlin pointed to this larger continuity. Despite bitter struggle during the peak years of immigration in the late 19th century, “the possibility of conscience never vanished entirely,” and there were always people, from all groups, who recognized “the community of interests” that united them. Thanks to them, Boston not only survived its internal wars over immigration; it made a similar peace possible for the rest of the country.

Ted Widmer is a trustee of the Massachusetts Historical Society.