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Becoming a More Perfect Union

Summary: 
50 years ago, Congress took up a series of civil rights proposals under President Johnson’s leadership: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which was viewed at the time – correctly – as one of the great accomplishments for civil rights in America.

Ed. note: This is part of a series of blog posts written by Administration officials in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. Read more here.

As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, much has been said about what has changed in fifty years – and what has not changed enough. As Congressman John Lewis reminded us – at both the 1963 and 2013 marches - we have work to do on voting rights, on jobs, on equality of opportunity in this country.  

He’s right about that, and about another thing: he used part of his brief speech to call out the need to pass an immigration reform measure, to “bring [immigrants] out into the light and set them on a path to citizenship.”

In saying those powerful words, he places the immigration issue squarely in a civil rights frame, which is right where it was 50 years ago, as Congress took up a series of civil rights proposals under President Johnson’s leadership: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This latter bill dramatically changed the way that immigrants were admitted to the United States, undoing a policy which allocated visas according to notions of racial superiority. You heard that right: for most of the 20th century, our immigration laws were based on the “racial” notion that some Europeans were superior to others. Think about what that meant to the rest of us. 

As Johnson pointed out in signing the act, under the old system, “…only three countries were allowed to supply 70 percent of all the immigrants. Families were kept apart because a husband or a wife or a child had been born in the wrong place. Men of needed skill and talent were denied entrance because they came from southern or eastern Europe or from one of the developing continents.” Signing that bill into law was viewed at the time – correctly – as one of the great accomplishments for civil rights in America.

Then as now, immigration reform was about restoring fundamental fairness to an outdated, broken system.  

Then as now, it was about reuniting families, creating an avenue for people with needed skills, and ensuring that everyone plays by the same set of rules.  

Then as now, it was about doing the hard work of making sure our nation makes progress on its road to becoming a more perfect union.

And then as now, it enjoyed bipartisan support even as it faced obstacles from political figures who are doing everything they can to stand in the way of progress.  

And just as with the work ahead on voting rights, on jobs, on equality of opportunity, we can’t let these detractors deter us. The value of looking back is that it inspires us for the road ahead, and reminds us to honor the sacrifices of those who paved the way to where we are today. If I take any message from Congressman Lewis’ ringing words, it is that we all live in the same house, and we have come too far to give up now. Adelante. Or together, Si Se Puede!

To read the White House Economic Reports on the Benefits of Immigration visit www.whitehouse.gov/immigration


More posts in this series: