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

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“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.”

But supporters of the bill did not merely say the critics were mistaken; they basically said they were bigots.

As this legislative drama unfolded, the Times editorial page was quick to echo this charge. “In a time when this country is attempting to wipe away ancient wrongs against its Negro citizens,” it thundered, “its conscience will not permit a sign at all ports of entry reading: ‘Only whites from Northwestern Europe are welcome.’”

Another scalding editorial examined the current law as the product of unfounded paranoia produced by “the mood of Harding isolationism, periodic Red Scares, and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan” in the “reactionary” 1920s. The “intellectual poison” of racism “is slow to work its way out of any people’s system,” the editorial sniffed.

News reporting on the bill’s progress was not as strident as the editorializing. Yet it was still unmistakably one-sided. The congressional testimony of Myra Hacker, who along with other opponents of the bill questioned the “hidden mathematics” of the legislation, was noted in a mere six-paragraph wire service item.

The paper devoted substantially more of its space to supporters. A doting Sunday Magazine profile on Edward Kennedy, written by editorial board member and Kennedy camp-follower William Shannon, claimed that Kennedy’s debut as floor manager of the bill marked “another milestone in the remarkable career of the junior Senator from Massachusetts” and the completion of Kennedy’s “political apprenticeship.” This lengthy salute, however, failed in any way to examine the social, cultural and economic implications of the legislation Kennedy was driving. Shannon said that when the immigration bill came to the Senate floor, everyone would be focused “as much on the skill of the sponsor as the merits of the bill.” Yet those merits, or demerits, were given only glancing mention.

The Times’ biases were also made clear by the way it allowed its news reporting to amplify the sanctimony of the hearings, which delegitimized the very real issues associated with assimilating third-world immigrants with starkly different cultural values, attitudes and traditions. Typical was the prominent play given to Senator Robert Kennedy’s prediction that the reforms would pass and that they would show “that one people is not intrinsically superior or inferior to another people.” Likewise the play accorded to Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach’s sermon that selecting immigrants based on “personal pedigree” was intolerable.

The Times also played carrots and sticks. Earlier in the debate, an editorial read racial ill-will into opposition voiced by Democratic Congressman Michael Feighan. But when Feighan threw his support behind the bill, the immigration subcommittee chairman was feted.

When Times news coverage did get into technical details of the reform bill at all, it ignored the reform’s “hidden mathematics.” Uncritically relaying unfounded forecasts and glib assurances in the service of wishful thinking, it overlooked the elephant in the next room — i.e., massive potential third-world influxes. “The bill would greatly increase immigration from such nations as Poland, Greece, Italy and Portugal,” one particularly incurious Times report maintained, failing to even mention India, China, Africa and Latin America, where populations were rapidly expanding.

The bill easily passed the Senate, 76 to 18.

As historian Otis Graham has written, the law of unintended consequences “was about to produce a major case study.” Under the new system, the total numbers of immigrants would triple to one million annually and the source countries of immigration would radically shift from Europe to the third world — two consequences that supporters of the 1965 reform bill guaranteed would never happen.

Years later, surveying the impact of the legislation, journalist Theodore White said the 1965 reforms were “noble, revolutionary and one of the most thoughtless of the many acts of the Great Society.” If that is the case, The Times bears a good share of the responsibility for bringing us to a demographic milestone Americans were promised they would never see.

William McGowan is author of “Coloring the News” and “Gray Lady Down.”

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