This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the Hart-Cellar Act). In the week ahead we are going to recognize this transformative piece of legislation–not only was it a complete overhaul of immigration policies and patterns of migration, it has had huge, if often not fully appreciated impacts on American culture and society–by highlighting a series of recent postings, commentaries, and reflections from sociologists and other social scientists that have appeared of late on the TSP homepage and through our social media. These will include great contributions from sociologists including Richard Alba, Nancy Foner, Douglas Massey, and John Skrentney, as well as Minnesota’s own superstar historian Erika Lee.
Many of these folks, it turns out, will also be gathered here in Minnesota at the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) for a conference reflecting on all this later in the month. I myself have been asked to be on a panel entitled “An Assessment of the 1965 Immigration Act and Future Immigration Policy.” I’m a little nervous about this because I think of myself as more of a dabbler on immigration than an expert. That is, I’m someone who relies heavily on the work of others and whose own research on the topic is limited and operates mainly around the edges and margins of the field–race, culture, collective identities, assimilation theory.
With this in mind, I’ve been trying to pull together my ideas and reflections on immigration policy past and present by thinking “through a racial lens.” There are several reasons I’m working on this angle.
Perhaps the most basic is that the original 1965 policy was motivated by in large part by the desire to eliminate racism and discrimination from the American immigration system. Passed in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and ’65, immigration reform was intended to abolish old, restrictive quotas and outright bans against migrants from Asia and Africa as well as to overhaul the Bracero which was seen as exploitation of Mexican laborers. In diversifying the sources of immigration and placing a premium on skills and family ties, in fact, the new law was supposed to establish a more equitable, racially just policy and society.
There are three racial angles I’m planning to focus on: demography, culture, and incorporation.
- Demography. I don’t think it is hard to argue that the immigration reform opened the doors to massive amounts of new immigration and the immigration of people from countries and cultures that previously had been restricted or severely limited. My main goal will be to highlight and discuss how this new immigration has dramatically transformed the racial and ethnic composition of the populace, remaking colorlines and categories of identification in the process. For what it is worth, I might also note that these changes and their implications will continue to evolve and change in coming years, driven not only by continued migration but also by differential birth rates, changing patterns of identification, and shifts in ethnic intermarriage.
- Culture. The expansion and diversification of migration to the United States that resulted from 1965 immigration reform was, whether intentionally and directly or not, associated with a whole series of shifts and changes and challenges to established racial heirarchies, shifting race relations, and racial attitudes associated with the movements we talk about as the Civil Rights movement. This includes the decline and discrediting of assimilation as an ideal or goal; the recognition and expansion of minority rights; the enrichment and diversification of lifestyles and culture more generally; the emergence of a politics of multiculturalism; and the virtual enshrinement of the discourse of diversity.
I myself have written the most about multiculturalism and the discourse of diversity. In a recent paper, I summarized these into several different arguments. One is that Americans are, nowadays, quite open and optimistic about diversity–not only on race and immigrant lines but on issues ranging from religion and sexuality to gender, disability, and age. “We are,” as Nathan Glazer put it almost twenty years ago, “all multiculturalists now.” The second major point cuts against the first: it is that talk about diversity is often marked by a series of underlying tensions and misgivings–about the relationship between group rights and individual freedoms, about ideals and hopes versus realities; about ideals versus actual structural conditions; about ideals versus inequalities. indeed, for as much as Americans tend to start with the positives about diversity, when it comes down to it, they often talk about the problems and conflicts and inequalities that go along with social difference in actual social life. And one of the biggest of these problems has to do with race. This is my third and perhaps most important point: that however open and far-reaching and general talk about diversity might be, the bulk of this discourse is deeply informed and determined–over-determined, I have suggested–by attitudes and understandings and experiences having to do with race in the United States. And the crux of the matter here is that this highly abstract and overly optimistic and entirely dominant discourse about diversity makes it very, very difficult to own up to the real problems and challenges of difference in the United States–especially those having to do with race. There’s a lot to say here–the persistence of racial inequities, the emergence of deeply racialized politics and policies and a paradoxically related colorblindness; the intractability and even invisibility of white privilege, colorblind racism–but my most important will be that all of this has particular bearing on immigrants.
- Incorporation. The perverse politics and culture of race that I have been talking about all has particular bearing on immigrants–not only in terms of the policies they encounter but also the stereotypes and biases they create. It helps explain some of the prejudicial attitudes against immigrants that scholars have documented. Yet this does not hit home evenly or equally on all American immigrants, and presents an especially pronounced challenge for darker skinned migrants, those associated with African Americans and blackness more generally. This is one of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to research and writing from Alejandro Portes and his colleagues on “segmented assimilation.” At least in theory, it puts race at the center of any account of the differential incorporation experiences of migrants and their children. The implications here are massive and range from the unique ways in which these new Americans understand and identify themselves to the opportunities for mobility and success that they and their children will encounter.
For the panel where I am planning to present some version of all this, we are supposed to talk about implications for public policy. I assume the idea is to focus on policy related to immigration. I don’t know how much I have to say about that. Like many scholars, I agree that we need a real policy on immigration. I think it is important that our policy, whatever it is, focus not only on who gets in (or not), but also on how all of our new arrivals are treated once in this country, what kind of needs they have and supports we can provide. And I agree with Doug Massey’s that we need a policy that is not driven only by utopian ideals or abstract fears, but by an actual, realistic understanding of social and economic processes that motivate migration. I guess I’d simply add that the realities of race and racism in contemporary America are a big and quite distinct part of this social package as well.
Anyway, that’s what I will be thinking about and working on over the next couple of weeks. If any of you have any ideas or advice, I’d welcome it. And even if not, you are all invited to come to Minneapolis later in the month to get a much bigger, more comprehensive big on immigration history, politics, and policy that this topic deserves. I hear the weather will be beautiful.