It was considered a symbolic move — President Lyndon Johnson going to the Statue of Liberty and signing an immigration bill that gave people from every country in the world an equal chance to come to America.
The president himself described the legislation as less than revolutionary. "It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power," he said during the ceremony on Oct. 3, 1965.
But, he noted, the new law also would "strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways."
Fifty years later, there's been dramatic change as a result of the Hart-Celler Act that Johnson signed. A country that was almost entirely native-born in 1965 has a significant foreign-born population; demographic diversity has spread to every region, expanding a black-and-white racial paradigm into a multicolored one. Americans have gleefully adopted musical genres and foods that have immigrant origins, while remaining conflicted and uneasy politically over who's here, legally and not.
Facts about Hart-Celler, also known as the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965:
Pushed by the American families of European immigrants who wanted to bring relatives over, Congress decided to replace the nation's tightly controlled, country-of-origin immigration system with a process that divided visas equally between all countries, giving preference to immigrants with advanced skills and education, or family ties to U.S. citizens.
For some in Congress, the thought was that virtually nothing would change. At that time, many figured immigrants from European countries would be the main beneficiaries.
"Historic patterns of immigration had always been from Europe," said Erika Lee, a professor of immigration history at the University of Minnesota. "They were thinking this builds on those patterns."
However, immigrants from places like Asia and Latin America came to the U.S. as well. Once they were in, they also made use of the family preferences to bring over their parents, children and siblings. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, 59 million people have come to the U.S. since 1965, just over half from Latin America and a quarter from Asia.
OPENING A CLOSED DOOR
Immigration to the United States had been tightly controlled starting from the late 19th century, with outright bars on people from certain regions like Asia, and in 1924, an immigration law limiting the number of immigrants from a particular country at 2 percent of the population of that country already living in the United States in 1890. Restrictions loosened slightly over the middle 20th century, but it was still very difficult to enter from a non-favored nation.
As a result, America in the middle part of the 20th century was atypical compared to both the country's origins and where it is now, said Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Research Center.
In 1965, only 5 percent of people in the United States were foreign-born. He contrasted that to the period between 1860 and 1920, where it was between 13 and 15 percent and where we are now, at 14 percent.
"Today is more typical than 1970 in terms of the presence of immigrants in the population," he said.
The U.S. has gone from 84 percent white, 11 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian in 1965, to 62 percent white, 11 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian now, the Pew report said. By 2055, no one group is expected to have a majority.
SOME LACKED PAPERWORK
The law also led to the contemporary issues of immigrants in the country without legal documentation, said Alan Kraut, history professor at American University.
Prior to 1965, countries in the Western Hemisphere didn't have quotas, so those in Mexico and Central America could come back and forth fairly regularly. Once the law was enacted, those countries had quotas as well, which were not high enough to meet the built-up demand.
The law was signed a year after the U.S. formally ended its bracero program, which had allowed temporary workers to come from Mexico for more than 20 years. "Both of these laws really shut the door to a generation of cross-border migration," Lee said.
Every country getting the same quota has also spurred huge backlogs for places like India, where demand is much higher than in other, less populous nations.
A CHANGING AMERICA
The larger U.S. culture has been greatly impacted by immigrants and the cultures they've brought with them, said Jeff Melnick, professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. "You'd have to go really far to find an area of American life that's untouched by the realities of the '65 law," he said.
He pointed to hip-hop as a prime example, which has roots in the toasting, or chanting over beats, practiced by Jamaican and other Caribbean immigrants and brought with them to New York City.
Jim Bittner, president and general manager at Bittner-Singer Orchards north of Buffalo, New York, observed that, decades ago, the seasonal farmworkers were mostly Southern blacks who would leave an area when the work was done. Sometime in the 1980s that started to shift, with the workforce becoming increasingly immigrant, predominantly Hispanic.
But it hasn't been all smooth sailing. Issues of how well America is bringing together all the people who live here now abound in all spheres, from conversations about representation in media and entertainment, to heated political debates about fences and deportations.
"With one hand, the dominant culture of the U.S. is sort of taking their stuff and saying, 'This is delicious' or 'This is funky' or 'Wow, this is attractive,' while also saying, 'God, I wish those people wouldn't be taking our jobs,'" Melnick said.