HIAS and the Hart-Celler Act

HIAS is an international aid organization helping to resettle mainly Jewish immigrants and refugees, so what could such an organization have to do with the shift  in immigrant demographics over the past 50 years from mostly white to mostly Asian and Latin American? The answer demonstrates how actions on behalf of an organization’s clientele have effects that ripple outward in surprising ways.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act was to have long-term and far-reaching consequences for the United States, and HIAS stood to benefit from the changes this act introduced into the then-current immigration laws.

Some historians writing about the passage of the Hart-Celler Act have noted the role of NGOs, including HIAS, in shaping the bill.[1][2] And the Jweekly obit for James Rice, who was HIAS’s Executive Director at the time, mentions how he “worked with government officials to codify a new immigration law that eased restrictions for the entry of refugees.[3]

In this letter from James Rice to Philip Hart, one of the bill’s sponsors, Rice responds to Hart’s expressions of thanks for HIAS’s help in getting the act passed.
In this letter from James Rice to Philip Hart, one of the bill’s sponsors, Rice responds to Hart’s expressions of thanks for HIAS’s help in getting the act passed.

To understand the Hart-Celler Act, it’s useful to look at how it amended the McCarren-Walter Act, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. The biggest change between the 1952 and the 1965 acts was the end of the National Origins Formula, a system of national quotas designed to maintain 1910 ratios of immigrant nationalities, which in one form or another had been in place since the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921. Its purpose was to reduce the number of immigrants into the U.S. from Southern and Eastern Europe.

The 1952 act upheld the national quota system, basing it on the 1920 census, and though it did away with any explicit barring of Asian immigrants, it instituted a convoluted system of racial identification that severely limited allotment of visas that “ensured that total Asian immigration after 1952 would remain very limited.[4]” In terms of the demographics of immigrants, the 1952 law was identical to the 1924 law—85% of visas after 1952 went to Northern and Western European immigrants.[4]

The main goal of the Hart-Celler Act was to abolish the quota system entirely (Celler had been trying to abolish the quota system since the Immigration Act of 1924). The act also nullified the de facto exclusion of Asian countries.

Letter from Senator Hart to HIAS President Murray Gurfein informing him that HIAS’s resolution supporting the bill would be entered into the official record of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee.

One of the main criticisms of the bill at the time was that it would dramatically alter the ethnic and racial composition of the country. President Johnson dismissed such fears. Signing the bill into law at the base of the Statue of Liberty, Johnson claimed, “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives.”

Most commentators agree that the opposite was the case. While the bill was expected to reverse the disparity between immigrants from different parts of Europe, 88% of 59 million people who have immigrated to the United States since 1965 are from non-European countries.[5] “By 1975, immigrants from Asia and Latin America accounted for about two thirds of the immigration to the United States.[6]

On the left half of the graph, you can see the shift from a predominantly white immigrant population in 1965 to one that is predominantly Asian and Latino, a change from 19 percent of total immigrants to 73 percent.
On the left half of the graph, you can see the shift from a predominantly white immigrant population in 1965 to one that is predominantly Asian and Latino, a change from 19 percent of total immigrants to 73 percent (from “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065,” http://www.pewhispanic.org).

Additionally, the law capped immigration within the Western hemisphere for the first time in U.S. history, which hindered migration flows developed over the previous decades. Thousands of migrant workers who had freely passed in and out of the US became “illegal immigrants” overnight, many choosing to stay rather than risk an increasingly dangerous border crossing. By eliminating the quota system and regulating Latin American immigration, the bill dramatically affected the ratio of European to non-European immigrants in the US.[7]


Here, documents record lobbying and outreach efforts, and a letter from Hart to HIAS’s president mentions the inclusion of a HIAS resolution on the quota system in the records of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee.


Though it’s difficult to say to what extent HIAS helped get the Hart-Celler Act passed, records in the collection demonstrate that HIAS was actively engaged in promoting the bill. HIAS’s support of the Hart-Celler Act, mobilizing its base and coordinating its efforts with other immigrant and refugee organizations, is not insignificant, and it demonstrates how a collection about a Jewish immigrant refugee organization concerned mainly with Eastern Europeans and North Africans, can contribute to the history of Asian American and Latin American immigration in the U.S. and the militarization of our Southern border.



[1] Lazin, Fred A. (2005). The Struggle for Soviet Jewry in American Politics: Israel versus the American Jewish Establishment. Oxford: Lexington Books.

[2] Reimers, David. (1992). Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America, 2nd ed. New York City: Columbia University Press.

[3] http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/6980/jewish-leader-james-rice-dies-after-years-of-bettering-lives/

[4] https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/immigration-act

[5] https://www.thenation.com/article/this-is-how-immigration-reform-happened-50-years-ago-it-can-happen-again/

[6] Law, Anna O. “The Diversity Visa Lottery: A Cycle of Unintended Consequences in United States Immigration Policy.” Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 21, No. 4.

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/09/25/how-a-1965-immigration-reform-created-illegal-immigration/?utm_term=.c78c7ebdc893

1957 Holiday Message from Murray Gurfein

In the fall of 1957, Murray Gurfein was Chairman of the United HIAS Executive Committee. A holiday message was printed on the front page of the September-October 1957 issue, number XXI, of “Inside United HIAS Service”:

Holiday Message from Murray Gurfein
1957 High Holy Day Message from Murray Gurfein

Always “on message”, Gurfein’s words emphasized the many Jews still living in difficult circumstances in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East:

Hope for assistance in immigration to welcoming havens
Hope in the new year for assistance to Jews seeking “welcoming havens”

“Inside United HIAS Service” was published beginning in 1954 (after the merger between HIAS, the United Service for New Americans (USNA) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Migration Department), and appears to have continued at least into the mid-1980s. The archives include issues from 1954-1961. A successor publication, “Inside HIAS”, includes issues from 1981-1983.

Best wishes from the HIAS project staff for a good New Year and an enjoyable Sukkot.

“Your representatives just disappeared from Sao Paulo” …

After World War II, HIAS and other immigration organizations focused on relocating survivors of the war to safe and financially stable towns and cities around the world. There were Jewish communities throughout Latin and South America, and because of existing restrictive immigration laws in the United States, Canada, and much of western Europe, the best option for thousands of Jewish families without friends or family to sponsor them elsewhere (and who did not want to emigrate to Israel), was to relocate to Latin or South America. [HIAS categorized all of these countries as “Latin America” in their filing taxonomy, and I will do the same in this post.]

HIAS set up offices in the cities with the best potential for accommodating new immigrants. Cities for which we have files, from about 1946-1960 include Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; Quito Ecuador and Caracas Venezuela.

These files were created and maintained by two related departments within the Overseas Operations Division. The Latin America desk was managed in those years by Ilja Dijour (in conjunction with an extensive research and reference department), at the HIAS world headquarters in New York City. We have processed about 2 1/2 bankers boxes of Dijour’s files on Latin American cities, which include correspondence and monthly statistical reports from HIAS representatives on changing immigration issues in their respective communities. There are also more general country folders on countries in which HIAS was active as well as other countries around the world.

A smaller group of just 6 thick folders document in part the work of Dr. Henry Shoskes, HIAS overseas representative, who traveled throughout the Latin American region during the decade that his files encompass. Two folders are on Latin America and contain correspondence and reports, mostly from Shoskes to the leadership at HIAS in New York, with information on issues of resettling specific groups of recent arrivals; statistical reports; proposed budgets for the coming year in specific HIAS offices based on the number of immigrants HIAS expected to work with; and issues relating to the local economic conditions and the functioning (or not) of the local Jewish community leadership.

Some of this local leadership had been in Latin America long enough to be fluent in Spanish or Portuguese, but for easier communication with staff from the New York office, including Dijour and Shoskes, many of the documents in these files are in Yiddish or German – more common languages for both Latin American and American Jews in the post-WWII years. In limited instances translations are provided, probably by staff in the New York office.

A document that caught my eye while processing was this cable, in German, sent in March 1954 from Federacao Kahan, the President of the Sao Paolo Jewish federation, about the situation in HIAS’ office there. [From Dijour’s file overseas operations/cities/Sao Paolo correspondence 1954.]

"As we had feared ..."
“As we had feared …”

A similar cable was sent to the Joint the same day.  The translation from the German is below:

From president of HIAS office in Sao Paolo
From president of HIAS office in Sao Paolo

Unfortunately, there is no more information about the situation in the files. A brief report in the JTA from January 31, 1954 supplies some background. And more information on the immigrants from the Foehrenwald camp (mentioned in the JTA report, an important clue) in Germany can be found in these Latin American files.