How a 1965 immigration law shaped today’s Los Angeles

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What does Lyndon Johnson have to do with the creation of L.A.’s Koreatown?

The lasting effects of the Immigration Act of 1965 were apparent at a recent swearing in ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Over 6,000 people from 140 countries sat in neat rows before a stage and a giant American flag. Some of the largest numbers of people came from countries like the Philippines, China, Armenia and Iran.

Immigrants at the mass citizenship swearing in a hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center. Along with swearing their allegiance to their new country, those attending see a video welcome from President Obama and participate in singing the National Anthem. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But more than 50 years ago, one wouldn’t have seen that level of national diversity at an American citizenship ceremony. “Before 1965 we had an explicitly discriminatory admission policy for immigrants coming to this country,” said Hiroshi Motomura, a professor of law and an expert on the history of America’s immigration laws.

UCLA professor Hiroshi Motomura is an expert on the history of America’s immigration laws. He says it’s a myth that the United States has had an open door policy to immigrants. For most of the 20th Century, the U.S. tightly restricted immigration from most parts of the world as a way to ensure white dominance in America’s demographics. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

For much of the 20th Century, immigration laws favored white, western Europeans and made it very difficult for people from other parts of the world to settle in the country and eventually become American citizens.

“Back in the 1920s, Congress decided that it wanted to preserve the ethnic population as it existed around the turn of the 20th Century,” said Motomura. “So it basically put quotas, or limits, on the number of people who came from certain countries.”

It was called the National Origins Act and it clamped down on immigration from eastern and southern Europe, Asia, Africa and the the Middle East. During that era, just 70 percent of new immigrants to the United States came from just three countries: Great Britain, Germany and Ireland.

Congressman Albert Johnson of Washington State, one of the authors of the National Origins Act called the law a “bulwark against the stream of alien blood” coming into the country.

“And so this was very much a quasi-, or perhaps, pseudo-scientific view of immigration,” said Motomura. “That if we let the ‘right people,’ in, not only will this country maintain its ethnic composition, somehow it will lead to a better and more intelligent America.”

After World War II there were growing calls to reform America’s racist immigration restrictions. Eventually Congress passed a landmark piece of legislation 50 years ago this year, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act after its sponsors in Congress.

At a presidential signing ceremony on New York’s Liberty Island, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, President Lyndon Johnson promised that it would be good for America. “This measure that we sign today will make us truer to ourselves, both as a country and as a people” said Johnson. “It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways.”

With the New York skyline in the background on clear October day, President Lyndon Baines Johnson sings the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 into law on Liberty Island. Johnson promised Americans that the law would make the United States truer to its values and strengthen the nation. (Photo: Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library)

The Immigration Act abolished America’s old, race-based immigration quotas and replaced them with a preference system based on immigrants’ skills and the family relationships they had with U.S. citizens or legal residents.

“This is a simple test and a fair test,” said Johnson at the signing ceremony. “Those who can contribute most to this country, to its growth, its spirit, to its freedom, will be admitted first to this land.”

These new immigrants began changing the country and especially Southern California.

After 1965,  Los Angeles began to evolve into the multi-national and multi-cultural crossroads it is today. This all was new. The 1960 census reported that more than five million of Los Angeles County’s then-population of six million people were white and largely native born.

Now, only about a third of L.A.’s population is white, and over 35 percent of L.A. County residents are foreign born. The region, in fact, has the largest number of Filipinos, Armenians, Ethiopians, Thais, Taiwanese and Koreans outside of their countries of origin.

Those who are old enough watched these demographic changes with their own eyes. “When I first arrived here there were a total of 1,000 Koreans living in the Los Angeles metropolitan area,” said William Min, an attorney and Koreatown resident. Min came to the United States in the 1940s when his father was sent as the Republic of Korea’s first counsel-general to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles attorney William Min remembers the Immigration Act transforming Los Angeles and helping to create L.A.’s Koreatown as new immigrants came to the neighborhood. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

He recalled a time when L.A.’s Koreatown, now home to the largest concentration of Korean-Americans in the country, had few people from Korea. But after the passage of the immigration act, that changed. “Suddenly I walked down he boulevard, Olympic Boulevard, and I start hearing Korean conversation,” said Min. “And that was a big surprise to me. And then I saw hand written commercial signs start to pop up and Korean items were being displayed. That was a very exciting surprise.”

The children and grandchildren of Korean immigrants at a World Cup viewing party in Koreatown in 2014. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But the Immigration Act of 1965 also planted the seeds of future immigration problems. While it lifted immigration restrictions for people from many parts of the world, it also established, for the first time, formal quotas on migration from Latin America, creating persistent immigration problems that America wrestles with to this today.

“What it did was say, ‘okay, we’re going to end the formal discrimination, but that means we’re going to treat all countries the same,'” said Motomura. “But treating all countries the same meant now, for the first time, we’re going to limit Mexican immigration. That created a situation that has led to over 10 million people in the country without lawful status.”

Demonstrators at a 2013 immigration march in downtown Los Angeles demanding a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents in the United States. While the Immigration Act of 1965 loosened restrictions from many parts of the world, it put in place the first immigration quotas for people from Mexico and other Latin American countries. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But back at the citizenship ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center, which concluded with a singing of the National Anthem, the checkered history of America’s immigration laws and the current debates over immigration policy seemed very far away.

Many of America’s current debates about national character and the role of immigrants in our society trace the origins to the Immigration Act. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)