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Records of Rights Vote: The Immigration Act

Cast your vote for the Immigration Act to be displayed first in the new “Records of Rights” gallery. Polls close on November 15!

On November 13, 1954, Ellis Island closed. More than 20 million immigrants had been processed through the island station since its opening in 1892.

But immigration was still limited. From 1924 until 1965, a person’s place of birth often determined his or her ability to immigrate legally into the United States. Immigration laws favored people from northern and western Europe over those from southern and eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Numerical limits, often called quotas, were assigned to each country. For example, a 1924 law allowed about 4,000 Italians to enter the United States annually while about 66,000 could emigrate from Great Britain. Asian immigrants, who entered the United States through Angel Island, were already largely banned from U.S immigration by other laws passed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When President Johnson signed the 1965 amendments to the Immigration Reform Act of 1952, that system of country-based immigration quotas was ended.

“This system violated the basic principle of American democracy–the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man,” said the President at the ceremony on Liberty Island.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration Act, 10/03/1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration Act, 10/03/1965 (National Archives Identifier 2803428)

The law authorized 120,000 immigration visas for people from the western hemisphere and 170,000 visas for people from the eastern hemisphere. The law emphasized family reunification and, to a lesser degree, occupational skills and refugee status. Supporters of these changes saw them as a matter of fairness—an offshoot of the broader civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Few anticipated that the new system would create profound demographic change.

But the 1970s and 1980s saw a surge of immigration from Asia and Latin America that continued into the 21st century. By the late 1970s, three-quarters of all legal immigrants would arrive here from those two areas.

Cast your vote for the Immigration Act to be displayed first in the new “Records of Rights” gallery. Polls close on November 15!

First page of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965

First page of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965

Rediscovery #: 20877 Job A1 10-061 Rotunda-Jan2010

Final page of Immigration Reform Act of 1965

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