The Hart-Celler Act

Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Hearts Sellers focuses on two women who have come to the United States with their husbands in the early 1970s as part of the Hart-Celler Act. Learn more below about this important piece of legislation passed in 1965.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, more commonly known as the Hart-Celler Act (after its two sponsors Senator Philip A. Hart of Michigan and Representative Emanuel Celler of New York), was a landmark piece of immigration legislation. For decades before the passage of the new law, a federal quota system severely limited the numbers of immigrants from outside of Western Europe. This discrimination prioritized the immigration of white Europeans over people of other races and nationalities. Bill co-sponsor Celler noted, “Forty years of testing have proven that the rigid pattern of discrimination has not only produced imbalances that have irritated many nations, but Congress itself, through a long series of enactments forced by the realities of a changing world saw fit to modify this unworkable formula so that today it remains on the books primarily as an expression of gratuitous condescension.”

Naturalization Ceremony

With the passage of the Hart-Celler Act priority was given to “highly skilled” immigrants, those with family already living in the U.S., and refugees, creating a merit-based system over a system that revolved primarily around national origin. The act also set a national cap of 20,000 for all countries, including those from North, Central, and South America, which had previously had no caps. The bill was very popular in Congress and passed in the House 318-95. Since the passage of the act, the immigrant population of the U.S. has more than quadrupled, with more than 14% of the population being immigrants. The passage of Hart-Celler fundamentally changed immigration to the U.S., even if those who supported the bill saw it as a much less influential bill than it actually became. In 1960, 84% of immigrants were from Europe or Canada; by 2017, immigrants from Europe and Canada totaled 13.2% with the balance shifted towards immigrants from more parts of the world.

While the Hart-Celler Act opened up more immigration to people from Asia, Africa, and other non-European nations, it did prioritize family reunification and “skilled” workers over other immigrants. Immediate family members of those already living in the U.S. were not counted towards the national caps, so bringing families back together became one of the most prevalent reasons for immigrating. People who choose to immigrate to the U.S. have to be “sponsored” unless they are under one of the visas given for work or study. The Hart-Celler Act led to a boom in international students, workers in STEM fields, and other “highly valued” immigrants arriving in the U.S. Unfortunately, the law does not value those in “unskilled” fields, such as agricultural workers, tradespeople, and others, which gives them a much rougher road on their immigration journey. Sometimes these journeys can take decades or end in deportation or other negative outcomes. The cap on immigration from other countries in the Americas has changed the face of agriculture in the U.S. and has led to an immigration crisis, problems at the southern border, and a much more difficult journey for many Mexican, Central, and South American immigrants. As such, millions of people have immigrated to the U.S. without legal sponsorship or authorization in order to find new opportunities for themselves and their families.

President Lyndon Johnson, upon signing the Hart-Celler Act of 1965

“This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives .... This bill says simply that from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here. ... Those who can contribute most to this country—to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit—will be the first that are admitted to this land. The fairness of this standard is so self-evident that we may well wonder that it has not always been applied. Yet the fact is that for over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and has been distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system. Under that system the ability of new immigrants to come to America depended upon the country of their birth. Only 3 countries were allowed to supply 70 percent of all the immigrants. It has been un-American in the highest sense ... Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. ... Those who do come will come because of what they are, and not because of the land from which they sprung.”

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