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President Lyndon B. Johnson on the occasion of the signing of the Immigration and Nationality Act at the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965 (photo by Yoichi Okamoto)

Immigration and Nationality:
Action of Historic Importance

This fall marked the 50th anniversary of a major development in United States history: the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Its effects endure.

According to the Census Bureau, from 2013 to 2014, the number of foreign-born residents in the U.S. increased by 1.04 million — with more than half of the increase from Asia (L.A. Times headline: “Asian influx”). The nation that was the greatest source of net immigrants was India, at about 171,000 (ahead of China at 136,000 and Mexico at 130,000).

Before 1965, India was among the countries that had seen meager quotas, severely limiting the Indian American population.

That population has soared, from fewer than 3000 in 1940 to more than 300,000 by 1980, 1.6 million by 2000, and 2.8 million by 2010. Now, people of Indian descent are estimated at more than 3 million, one percent of the United States. As the National Academies recently documented, the “Integration of Immigrants into American Society” remains strong.

The 1965 law represented decades, even centuries, of fitful progress.

In 1790, there was U.S. citizenship for free white persons. 1882 saw the so-called Chinese Exclusion Act and 1917 the Barred Zone Act to exclude Asians more broadly.

Laws in 1921 and 1924 imposed quotas that, with the 1917 act, blocked all Asians except Filipinos; in 1934 they, too, were banned. The Asian Indian population actually declined from 1930 to 1940, a period of xenophobia and economic depression in the U.S. and beyond.

The 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868 had enlarged citizenship rights, but judicial rulings yielded contradictory results in a nation that — like all others — was racially biased.

As Eric Liu wrote in The Accidental Asian, “To the judiciary system of the United States, Asian Indians were held to be: probably not white (1909), white (1910), white again (1913), not white (1917), white (1919 and 1920), not white (1923), still not white (1928), probably never again white (1939 and 1942).”

Amid World War II and the fight against Japanese imperialism, the Chinese Exclusion Act was reversed in 1943. In 1946, the exclusion of Indians and Filipinos was eased, as anti-colonialism surged worldwide. In 1952, immigration was opened further.

Yet because of tight lingering quotas (based on a National Origins Formula reflecting the 1890 and then 1920 U.S. population), not until 1965 did the U.S. more fully welcome Indians and others from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East with expanded quotas and family reunification possibilities. (Immigrants from the Western Hemisphere actually faced quotas for the first time.) Congressman Emanuel Celler had lent his name to the 1946 law, originally introduced in 1943 and endorsed by President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1965, Celler teamed to produce legislation that President Lyndon Johnson signed into law October 3rd, at the Statue of Liberty.

A generation later, 1986 brought the Immigration Reform and Control Act (with provisions concerning employers rarely enforced), and 1990 higher limits for immigrants and visas. Since then, despite pressure for comprehensive reform, innovation has often been left to administrative and judicial interpretation.

President Barack Obama in 2012 adopted a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which he’s trying to broaden to more of the millions of unauthorized immigrants fearing deportation. This extension of DACA is under court review.

Another controversy surrounds the H-1B visa system, which corporations sometimes abuse at the expense of both American workers — occasionally required to train their lower-cost replacements — and H-1 holders (whose fates are tied to employers). Other guest-workers include those exploited under H-2B visas. There will always be tension among different interests and waves of immigrants.

That is what makes the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (which took effect in 1968) historic.

Fifty years ago (in the same year as the Voting Rights Act, the fruit of civil rights activists’ efforts), law moved the U.S. forward, countering the nativism that plagues all countries to different degrees, in different eras.

Yet the favoring of immigrants from certain highly skilled professions affected the work forces of their home countries, too.

My mother is a naturalized U.S. citizen (originally from Germany), while my wife is a U.S. permanent resident who remains a citizen of India. According to a May 2012 Indian government estimate, there are some 21.9 million “overseas Indians,” roughly 10 million who are non-resident Indians (NRI) NRI and 11.9 million of Indian origin. One-tenth live in the U.S., reports that estimate, while the U.S. census of 2010 found some 3 million people of Indian descent.

Based on those U.S. census figures — which identify some 157,000 Connecticut residents of Asian descent — about 30,000 residents of our state are of Indian descent. According to that census brief, “The Asian Indian population was the largest detailed Asian group in 23 states … [including in] Connecticut.”

Many immigrants from India have arrived with backgrounds in such fields as medicine or engineering; many embraced an entrepreneurial spirit that has enlivened our economy in sectors from hotels and restaurants to computing.

Indian Americans have contributed to communities across the United States.

Schools, colleges, hospitals, businesses, literary culture, government and other realms reflect Indian American influence.

The Obama administration includes U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Rahul Verma; Vanita Gupta (who heads the civil rights division of the Justice Department); Surgeon General Vivek Murthy; and Arati Prabhakar, an engineer who leads the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Another Indian American, Rajiv Shah, served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID).

For five decades and more, Indians have not only come to the U.S. in increasing numbers. They, and their children, have become part of this country and its leadership. Even as some families return to India or travel back-and-forth, more are settling here — as global citizens in the American immigrant tradition.

Josiah H. Brown lives in New Haven with his wife, a citizen of India and a U.S. permanent resident, and their children. Twitter: @Jhenryb92. Versions of this essay appeared in the Baltimore Sun and the Times of India, to which he is an occasional contributor.

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