By Ray O’Hanlon
It opened doors but also closed them.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed by Congress and signed into law fifty years ago this year.
And a consequence, though arguably unintended, was that the story of the Irish coming to America would go into a grinding reverse.
Half a century on, thousands of Irish cling to a shadowy American life and the idea of easy legal passage across the Atlantic from Ireland is a dream realized by only a privileged few.
The reform act, also known as the Hart–Celler Act, abolished the National Origins Formula that had been in place in the United States since the Emergency Quota Act of 1921.
It was proposed by Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, co-sponsored by Senator Philip Hart of Michigan, and promoted by, among others, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
The late senator would later state that the act had unintended consequences for the Irish, that being the virtual closing of the “Golden Door” to would-be immigrants from the island.
A number of Irish American community leaders warned at the time of the congressional debate over the bill that while the measure would rightly open immigration to an array of new nationalities, it would also end up discriminating against the Irish. Some Irish American legislators crafted a “set aside” number of visas for the Irish, but this option was not backed by the Irish government of the day.
“The Irish government took the decision to close the loop to stop people leaving the country and coming to America. But they could still go to England anyway,” Ciaran Staunton, chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform said Tuesday as he prepared to travel to Washington D.C. to meet with congressional legislators to discuss the continued plight of the undocumented Irish.
“Our community has paid a high price for it,” he said in reference to the ’65 act, which was signed into law in October of that year by President Lyndon Johnson though it did not actually take full effect until three years later.
Said Staunton: “What would Irish America look like if the door had remained open in 1965? Put it this way, I probably wouldn’t be making this trip to Washington.”