A History Of When The U.S. Chose Immigrants By Their Country Of Origin

Jan 13, 2018
Originally published on January 13, 2018 1:12 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We heard this week that President Trump believes some countries produce more desirable immigrants some less desirable. People who met with Trump at the White House reported that he said the United States admits too many immigrants from Africa - he actually used a vulgar term to characterize those countries - and that too few are admitted from countries like Norway. In fact, the United States for many years chose immigrants on the basis of their nationality, but it then abandoned that policy as unjust. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The notion of favoring immigrants from Norway did not originate with President Trump. In 1924, the U.S. Congress endeavored to shape the future ethnic profile of the country by enacting a new visa quota system based on national origin. Countries in Northern Europe from then on would get thousands of immigrant slots each year. Countries in Asia and Africa got maybe a hundred apiece.

The new law reflected the blatantly racist recommendations of a congressional commission that classified countries according to the character of their people. Africans were judged to be undesirable. Slavs were said to demonstrate carelessness as to the virtue of honesty. Scandinavians, meanwhile, were considered, quote, "the purest type." By the early 1960s, however, that idea of judging people according to their country of origin had fallen into disrepute. In his 1964 State of the Union message, President Lyndon Johnson called for a new approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON JOHNSON: A nation that was built by the immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission, what can you do for our country? But should not be asking, in what country were you born?

(APPLAUSE)

GJELTEN: The Johnson administration proposed to do away with national origin quotas altogether. A new law would have immigrant candidates selected on the basis of their individual merit. The bill's sponsor in the Senate, Democrat Philip Hart of Michigan, portrayed the change as a matter of civil rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHILIP HART: The incidence of religion, of place of birth, of the color God gave us, the way we spell our names - these are not the things on which America judges Americans or anybody else.

GJELTEN: There was opposition to the elimination of national origin quotas, largely from the same members of Congress who opposed civil rights legislation. But the new law ultimately passed with bipartisan support. In October 1965, President Johnson signed the new immigration law in a ceremony at the Statue of Liberty. He declared the end of discrimination on the basis of national origin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: 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.

GJELTEN: The national origin quota policy, Johnson said, had been un-American in the highest sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: Today, with my signature, this system is abolished.

GJELTEN: The country had sent a new message to the rest of the world.

MUZAFFAR CHISHTI: That America is not just a place for certain privileged nationalities to come.

GJELTEN: Muzaffar Chishti is a senior lawyer at the Migration Policy Institute and himself an immigrant from India. He says the United States, by abolishing national origin quotas, made a promise to open doors to immigrants of all nationalities.

CHISHTI: We are truly the first universal nation. That may have been the promise of the Founding Fathers, but it took a long time to realize it.

GJELTEN: In the years since, America has become a truly multicultural nation. With the president now saying that some countries send better immigrants than others, the question is whether America will abide by its promise in the years ahead. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.