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Realizing Lady Liberty’s dream

| Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The 1960s was a period of soul searching for the United States. The civil rights movement was surging ahead, expanding the scope of the American Dream. In the midst of this progress, Congress enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, popularly known as the Hart-Celler Act after its sponsors, Senator Philip A. Hart and Representative Emanuel Celler. This Act ended the preference for northern Europeans in America’s immigration policy, allowing for dramatically greater levels of immigration from Asia, Africa and the Americas. Arguably, no act of Congress has had as dramatic an impact on America’s identity. Much of America’s unprecedented growth and progress in the last half century can directly and indirectly be attributed to this immigration reform.  

Successive waves of immigration from all over the world built the United States, making it the melting pot that it is today. However, for much of America’s history, immigration was heavily restricted to certain nationalities. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act quashed America’s first wave of Asian immigration after the California Gold Rush. In 1924, after several decades of heavy immigration, largely Catholic and Jewish, from southern and eastern Europe, Congress succumbed to nativist pressures and established a quota-based immigration system where 70 percent of the total allocation went to immigrants from northern Europe. This quota system dramatically shaped the face of America. Prior to 1965, before the Hart-Celler Act became law, only 5 percent of immigrants were born in Asia and 19.1 percent of immigrants were born in the Americas. In 2016, the numbers show a dramatic increase; Asian immigrants now account for 30.8 percent of total immigrants and immigrants from the Americas account for 52.8 percent of the total immigrant population.

In the midst of the civil rights movement, the Kennedy brothers and other prominent American politicians advocated for inclusive reforms to the existing immigration policy. In response to this mounting pressure, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act in a surprisingly quick and bipartisan fashion. Interestingly, as a concession to nativist prejudices in Congress, the Act created a strong preference for family reunification immigration, also known as chain migration. The rationale being, since the majority of immigrants present in the country were European at the time, chain migration would advantage immigrants from Europe, who were viewed favorably by nativists. Paradoxically, this clause has since allowed millions of immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Americas to come to the United States.

The Act’s eponymous sponsor, New York congressman and civil rights advocate, Emmanuel Celler was himself a descendent of Jewish immigrants. Representative Celler was an accomplished legislator, instrumental in the passage of four Constitutional Amendments, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and approximately 400 major laws. Of particular relevance to Notre Dame is Rep. Celler’s efforts to normalize relations between the United States and the Holy See at a time when Catholicism was considered to be “un-American.” In July 1939, Celler extensively lobbied the State Department to start the 45-year long process to reestablish full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Relations between the U.S. and the Vatican were terminated in 1867 due to strong anti-Catholic sentiments. The success of congressman Celler’s inclusive vision is especially evident in his former district covering parts of Brooklyn and Queens in New York. Queens now includes the most diverse square mile in the world where Americans of all backgrounds live, work and commute together in harmony speaking hundreds of different languages.

On a larger scale, immigration has undisputedly spurred growth and innovation throughout America’s history. Immigrants bring with them an entrepreneurial zeal; starting businesses ranging in size from local convenience stores to household names such as SpaceX, Chobani and Alphabet (Google’s parent company). Without the Hart-Celler Act, the founders of these firms would have found it incredibly difficult to immigrate to the United States from South Africa, Turkey and Russia respectively. According to a 2011 study published by the Partnership for a New American Economy, 40 percent of current Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. In the quickly growing technology sector these numbers are even more pronounced. 51 percent of unicorn startups, companies valued at more than $1 billion, were founded by immigrants. 16 percent of these unicorns were founded by immigrants born in India, a country previously restricted to only 100 annual immigrants before the Hart-Celler Act. The 44 immigrant-founded unicorns have created 760 American jobs on average. Immigrants also create jobs by spending their incomes in the United States, particularly bolstering the service sector. A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that for every one immigrant that comes to the United States, an additional 1.2 jobs are created for native born Americans. Ignoring for a moment immigrants countless other contributions to the American experiment, immigration makes economic sense.

Americans have long welcomed those fleeing strife, famine and persecution, as well as those who simply want a better life for themselves and their children. Four hundred years ago, two Native Americans, Squanto and Samoset, famously welcomed refugees fleeing religious persecution in Europe to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Emma Lazarus’s poem “New Colossus” which is aptly placed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It is only fitting that on Oct. 4, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act in New York Harbor, under Lady Liberty’s approving gaze delivering on her pedestal’s bold promise.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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