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Borders & Heritage

Immigration Reform, A Work in Progress

Immigration policies and the impact on the people and culture in the Pacific Northwest.

January 7, 2016

With the passing of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the United States abolished the previous immigration quota system, which was designed to give preference to immigrants from Northwestern Europe and restricted immigration from Asia and Africa. The 1965 act led to a dramatic shift in America by opening the doors to  immigrants from around the world. This article was orginally published on on Oct 15 2015.

Immigration reform has been a continual struggle in America. 

"You can think about immigration policy over time as being kind of like a pendulum," says Dr. Jacob L. Vigdor, a professor at the University of Washington Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. "There are forces that push the pendulum one way and the other."

"For much of the beginning first 100 years of the country's history, there were really no restrictions on immigration. People just came to the U.S. and they started making a life here," says Jorge L. Baron, Executive Director of the NW Immigration Rights Project.

At first, the immigrants who came to Seattle were from places like Sweden, Norway, Germany and England. Very small numbers of Italians, or those from eastern Europe, migrated. 

These early immigrants came to the Pacific Northwest to work in lumber mills and fisheries and on the railroads. By the late 1800s, this influx of workers included immigrants from Asia. 

Dr. Amy Bhatt, co-author of 'Roots & Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest'

Dr. Amy Bhatt, co-author of Roots & Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest and Assistant Professor at University of Maryland says, "The Pacific Northwest has a very unique place in American history, because it did offer many of these early South Asians a way to both situate themselves and become economically productive very early on." Though small in numbers at the time, South Asians, particularly Sikhs, have a history in this region dating back to end of the ninteenth century. "Now, this was also a period in time when we saw a lot of restriction of immigration from Asia," says Bhatt.

That restriction began with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and, after a series of discriminatory laws, in the 1920s the National Origins Quota system was adopted. It was designed to give preference to immigrants from northwestern Europe, and Asians were largely kept out. 

"People had very different attitudes about race and ethnicity," says Vigdor. "People were worried enough about the fact that we had Italians coming to the United States — people thought of Italians as an inferior race of people. There was a similar attitude towards immigration from Asia and from Africa — that we really didn't want people from those parts of the world in the United States." 

By the 1960s, pressure to end discrimination in U.S. immigration policies had built up. 

"The children of these European immigrants who had been excluded in the 1920s were now old enough to vote, and so their voices mattered and their voices were calling for a relaxation on the restrictions that would have excluded their aunts and their uncles," Vigdor explains.  "You had the Cold War going on — that was another factor in it. Many of the eastern European immigrants that were excluded in the 1920s were now behind the Iron Curtain, and there was a sense that we needed to reform our policy to make it easier for refugees from those nations to find a home in the United States."

But perhaps the most significant factor in the push for reform was the Civil Rights Movement, and with the passing of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the United States abolished the earlier quota system.

"There was a great deal of opposition to this act in 1965, and, in fact, when it was passed, Lyndon B. Johnson, in a very famous speech, says that this is a moment that we're opening the doors but it's not going to fundamentally change the fabric of American society," says Bhatt.  "We know now that that was pretty radically wrong, and instead what we see is that the United States fundamentally does change as a result of this." 

The change was felt in the Northwest as it was in the rest of the country. 

"We went from an earlier era where immigrants to the Seattle and the Pacific Northwest were basically all European, all white, to a situation now where more than half of the immigrants in this area are now of Asian origin," says Vigdor. 

Today, China, India  and the Philippines are among the top countries sending immigrants to the United States.

"The 1965 Immigration Act was a significant step forward," says Baron. "But it is important to note that there were still limits that were placed in 1965. 

"The '65 act kind of helped us to solve one problem," says Vigdor. "But you can also say that it contained the roots of another problem."

There are now over 11 million undocumented people living in the United States today, including over a million from Asia.

"By imposing new quotas on the western hemisphere, the act kind of led to the situation we find ourselves in today where there are many millions more people who want to come to the United States than have legal authorization [to do so]." 

Baron agrees, "Unfortunately, we are still in a system that was of the Cold War, of the Lyndon Johnson era, instead of this time of year, the twenty-first century." 


Dr. Jacob L. Vigdor, Professor, Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Washington.

"You can think about immigration policy over time as being kind of like a pendulum... there are forces that pull the pendulum one way or the other."

Amy Bhatt is the co-author of Roots & Reflections: South Asians In the Pacific Northwest

"We are still in a system that was of the Cold War, of the Lyndon Johnson era, instead of... the twenty-first century."

Laila Kazmi

@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is a Northwest Emmy award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. At KCTS 9, Laila produces the series Borders & Heritage, featuring stories of immigrant and refugee experiences in the Pacific Northwest and has produced Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. Her video-stories have appeared on KCTS 9PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS in San Diego. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art BeatThe Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES and Pakistan’s daily Dawn. Laila has a Master of Communication from the University of Washington.

More stories by Laila Kazmi

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