Jeremy Beck's picture


  by  Jeremy Beck

Activists have been telling me for the better part of a decade that reporters they speak with have no interest in changes to legal immigration numbers, despite multiple legislative attempts to double the annual immigration rate. That has changed over the past two years as candidate-now-President Trump has suggested reducing the numbers.

Chain Migration is under threat. Likely mid-term voters and the President want to see an end to the extended-family preference categories. Reporters today are retweeting a story from the Washington Post that uses a small part of the legislative history to try to explain why anyone would want to end Chain Migration today (spoiler: The Post thinks it's bigotry).

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act is well-known for increasing immigration and for ending the national origins quota system that had existed since the 1920s. News stories will often give the misimpression that ending Chain Migration would reverse all of the 1965 Act when actually it wouldn't reverse any of it (moving to a merit-based system, on the other hand would reverse the 1965 bill's priorities). In combination with the existing chain categories, the 1965 Act's changes resulted in the doubling of immigration over the next 25 years.

The Post is absolutely correct that the champions of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act were primarily concerned with repealing the national origin quotas, and that the new preference system that prioritized extended-family preference over skills and education was a result of a compromise between Democrats. Rep. Michael Feighan (who was simultaneously afraid about the spread of communism and eager to give a win to his Eastern-European constituents whom he would need for re-election) forged a compromise with President Johnson, Sen. Ted Kennedy and their allies to shift the immigration system away from skills toward preference for the extended-family ("Chain") categories. The Post highlights the irony that Feighan's compromise wound up shifting the balance of immigration away from Eastern Europe.

For more on Feighan and his compromise, see "The Overwhelming Barriers to Successful Immigration Reform" by Daniel J. Tichenor,
The Atlantic (2016); and Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Jerry Kammer's backgrounder on the 1965 bill.

The Post only reports part of the history though. The Champions of the 1965 Act were determined to get rid of the national origin quotas - and they had the public behind them. The repeal of the national origin quotas was very popular, but the idea of increasing overall immigration was not. Kammer writes:

One of the strongest arguments against the reform bill was presented at a Senate hearing by Myra C. Hacker, of a group called the New Jersey Coalition. Warning against lowering the barriers to entry at a time of a worldwide population boom, she told a Senate hearing:

In light of our 5 percent unemployment rate, our worries over the so-called population explosion, and our menacingly mounting welfare costs, are we prepared to embrace so great a horde of the world's unfortunates? At the very least, the hidden mathematics of the bill should be made clear to the public so that they may tell their congressmen how they feel about providing jobs, schools, homes, security against want, citizen education, and a brotherly welcome ... for an indeterminately enormous number of aliens from underprivileged lands.

Concerns about "the hidden mathematics of the bill" were seen as a threat to passage -- so much so that the Johnson administration created a "Blue Book" that advised advocates to repeat the message that the bill "leaves the present authorized level of immigration substantially unchanged."

Johnson, Feighan and Kennedy all insisted that the level of immigration would not increase under their bill. Rep. Emmanuel "Manny" Cellar (D-N.Y.), one of the bill's authors (and opponent of the national origin quotas since the 1920s) joined them in saying:

"...the bill before you in no way significantly increases the basic numbers of immigrants to be permitted entry. We are not talking about increased immigration; we are talking about equality of opportunity for all peoples to reach this promised land."

A brief legislative history of Chain Migration:

1924 -- Congress exempted spouses and unmarried adult children between 18-21 from per-country quotas. There were no categories for other relatives.

1952 -- Congress created chain categories for parents, adult children, and adult siblings in a limited number of countries. Highly-educated or skilled immigrants, however, received priority.

Average annual green cards issued 1952-1965: 265,520

"Immigration during the decade 1951-1960 totaled 2,515,479, the highest since the 1920s." - Congressional Research Service

1965 -- Congress extended the chains to every country of the world and reversed the priority so that the chain categories had preference over skill categories.

Average annual green cards issued 1965-1990: 530,462

1990 -- Congress raised the caps on chain categories.

Average annual green cards issued since 1990: more than 1 million

As you can see, Johnson, Feighan, Kennedy and Cellar were wrong. They didn't keep their promise to the public. Their bill doubled immigration numbers. Then Congress expanded Chain Migration in 1990 and doubled the numbers again, only this time, they also called for a bi-partisan commission to study the issue. President Clinton appointed Civil Rights Icon Barbara Jordan to chair that commission. The Jordan Commission recommended eliminating Chain Migration categories and prioritizing nuclear family and skills. Anyone curious as to why anyone would want to end Chain Migration would do well to start there.

President Johnson guided the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act to passage in part by instructing its champions to brush aside any concerns about the numbers. In his book "'That's Not What We Meant to Do': Reform and Its Unintended Consequences in Twentieth-Century America", Steve Gillon writes that "neither Congress nor the White House had carefully analyzed the potential impact of the family preference system."

The Washington Post's reporting takes a page out of Johnson's Blue Book: Highlight the popular elimination of national origins; keep the unpopular numbers in the dark.

Chain Migration

Updated: Wed, Jan 17th 2018 @ 4:30pm EST

NumbersUSA's blogs are copyrighted and may be republished or reposted only if they are copied in their entirety, including this paragraph, and provide proper credit to NumbersUSA. NumbersUSA bears no responsibility for where our blogs may be republished or reposted. The views expressed in blogs do not necessarily reflect the official position of NumbersUSA.