Broken promises: The 1965 immigration reform and The New York Times

“Whites account for under half of births in U.S.,” read the headline of a recent New York Times story by reporter Sabrina Tavernise. In the piece, Tavernise quotes a Brookings Institution demographer who says that the new Census Bureau data herald a “tipping point” from a “mostly white baby boomer culture to the more globalized multiethnic country that we are becoming.” This trend had been building for years, Tavernise adds somewhat offhandedly, “the result of the large wave of immigration here over the past three decades.”

The shift, however, is the direct result of something a bit more specific: the watershed Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which was intended as a modest step to overturn the restrictionist legislation of the 1920s. But the law proved far more consequential than intended, spurring a dramatic change in the country’s demographic composition that its backers and chief cheerleader in the press — i.e., The Times — did not foresee.

In fact, The Times’ coverage of the 1965 reform debate represents one of the more egregious cases of journalistic malpractice in its history. Maybe this is why Tavernise didn’t mention the 1965 reform by name — and why all of The New York Times’ immigration coverage, including its coverage of the Obama administration’s decision to halt deportations for young illegal immigrants — should be taken with a big grain of salt.

A Harris poll released in May 1965 showed that the public opposed easing immigration laws by a two-to-one margin. Nevertheless, as civil rights laws loosened the grip of racial discrimination, the immigration system then in place, which favored Northern Europeans immigrants over immigrants from other countries, was castigated as the equivalent of Jim Crow — at odds with “America’s ideal of the equality of all men without regard to race, color, creed or national origin,” as Senator Hiram Fong said as Senate hearings opened. There was also Cold War moral self-consciousness at play. How could the United States exert world leadership, asked Congressman Emanuel Celler, one of the bill’s cosponsors, if our immigration system was “a gratuitous insult to many nations?”

Opponents of the legislation, most of them conservatives still in disarray from the Goldwater rout in 1964, warned of granting entree to “an indeterminately enormous number of aliens from underprivileged lands,” as Myra C. Hacker, the vice president of the New Jersey Coalition of Patriotic Societies, put it. The bill, Hacker maintained, “fails to give due consideration to the economic needs, the cultural traditions and the public sentiment of the citizens of the United States.”

In the Senate, another opponent, Democrat Robert Byrd, said the existing system was “just and wise,” since newcomers from Western European countries were “more easily and readily assimilated into the American population.” Byrd added: “Why should the United States be the only advanced nation in the world today to develop a guilt complex concerning its immigration policies?”

Supporters of the bill, led by Senator Edward Kennedy, scoffed at such concerns. “First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually,” Kennedy said. “Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same. … Secondly, the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset. … [The bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and economically deprived nations of Africa and Asia.” Hiram Fong was categorical: “Our cultural pattern would never be changed.”