Called by one pundit “the most important piece of legislation that no one’s ever heard of,” the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, passed fifty years ago today, is the reason why many in our community call ourselves Korean Americans and not South Koreans.

Tom Gjelten, a correspondent for National Public Radio, tells a fascinating story about how this legislation was passed. While the law was meant to reverse a century of racist US policy against Chinese and other non-Europeans, it also sought to favor immigration from Europe over other countries. As it turned out, the opposite happened.

A provision was added to the law that prioritized immigrants who already had relatives in the United States. This satisfied conservatives who thought that because America in 1965 was mostly of European origin, the same demographic makeup would be maintained.

What they didn’t count on was the strong motivation of people from developing and post-colonial countries to immigrate to the United States, and, once established here, to sponsor their brothers and sisters, parents, aunts and uncles so they could also become American citizens. This provision is what allowed my mother to sponsor four out of her five siblings and her parents to come to America.

On a side note, the fact that an immigration bill was passed at all in 1965, in the midst of so much social turmoil at that time, is amazing. Compare this to the political climate we have today.

Jane Hong, a professor of history at Occidental College, also commemorated the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in an LA Times op-ed:

In the early 1960s, immigration rarely garnered headlines, leaving political elites to debate and decide the terms of the 1965 act’s passage largely among themselves. Widespread consensus in Washington that the United States needed some kind of immigration overhaul was enough to create action. That is clearly not the case today.

For the record, as a national organization that represents an immigrant community, the Council of Korean Americans supports comprehensive immigration reform. While the consequences of any legislation are impossible to predict with complete accuracy, leadership from both the White House and Congress will be needed, as it was in 1965, to solve a problem that will not get better on its own for the next fifty years.
Listen to the NPR story: