4 minute read

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the 1965 Immigration Act on Liberty Island in New York City.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the 1965 Immigration Act on Liberty Island in New York City.


Did you know that America’s population was only 5% foreign-born in 1965? What happened?

While there is no single cause for the demographic shift in our population over the last generation, an Associated Press article by Deepti Hajela points out one of the most significant legislative changes in the Twentieth Century. Odds are you have never heard of it. In 1965, President Johnson signed the Immigration Act that changed the way the United States received immigrants.

According to the article, the conventional thinking of the day was that this immigration bill would not have a significant effect on the American social landscape. However, it proves today to be one of the most significant changes in our country’s social fabric in the last century.

I encourage you to read the article, as it gives background and motivation behind the Immigration Act, and discusses the interesting tension it has created in the US. I do want to point out a few highlights though:

The US of 1965 was abnormal, not the one of 2015.

While most of us think of the international diversity in the US as a new direction for the country, it is not so. In fact, the extremely low foreign-born population in 1965 was the weird circumstance. Our country was founded by immigrants, historically grew through immigration, and had reached an all-time low in foreign-born population by 1965. Just one generation before, the population was 13-15 percent foreign-born. We are just now reaching that number again.

We have a love/hate relationship with immigration and diversity.

The article does a good job of pointing out our odd struggle with the diversity that immigration brings. Here is an excerpt:

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.

We love so much what immigration brings and we even celebrate the diversity in many ways, but we often dislike the presence of the people it brings. Another quote,

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.’

Historically European, immigration is now everything except European.

At the turn of the last century (1800-1900), the US was in the middle of its first great wave of immigration. At the time, the foreign-born population was at a record high, and it was almost entirely European. However, the current wave of immigration appears to be everything but European. Over half of our immigration comes from Latin America, another 25 percent is coming from Asia, and the majority of that last quarter is African. This is creating a very different America, and for the first time in a hundred years, our foreign-born population is reaching that record high. In fact, we are on track to bust the top right out of it. Our country will be forever different by 2055.

Key takeaways for Christians.

Here are a couple of things churches and believers should keep in mind concerning this issue:

  • While we are currently the dominant culture in the US, this is rapidly changing. We will increasingly need to know how to function (and more importantly witness) in a pluralistic society. In the past, your neighbor was from the same background as you. Even if they were not a Christian, they were steeped in the culture. Now, effective witness will require understanding of very different world views. Not only does your Hindu neighbor have no understanding of the gospel, they may have no understanding of the way you explain it.  This will require us to listen to others and learn from others about their beliefs in order to share ours.
  • We live in a world right now that speaks out of both sides of its mouth concerning immigration. We want eclectic ethnic foods, fashions, and the diversity in services provided by our immigrant communities. However, our society is often harsh and unwelcoming to the people that bring these things. Of all people, Christians have no right to be unwelcoming neighbors. I have talked before about being the right kind of neighbor , and we have a responsibility before God to welcome the stranger in our midst. This is a moment when we can stand out from the culture around us and be an effective witness in how we receive these new neighbors.

I encourage you to read the article, it is definitely worth the few minutes it will take to peruse, “1965 Immigration Act, presented as symbolic, changed nation”