Spotlight: Immigration in the 1980s

Gail Albright

Introductory IDs

Immigration Act of 1965

  • Maintained limit on immigration, and had some restriction on Latin American Immigrants, but allowed immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa to enter on an equal basis.


  • Term coined by political analyst Kevin Phillips. Southeast and Southwest, particularly Texas, Florida, and California. Population exceeded Northern states, and political strength grew.

Essential Question

Who Started the Fire?

When referencing to the fire of immigration that impacted the 80s, you could argue Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was what started the fire. This act lifted restrictions on immigration that previously favored Europeans. 7 Million immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and other countries flooded into the United States during the 80s as a result. While passed in the 60s, this act had great repercussions on the 80s.

Enduring Understanding

8.3: Postwar economic and demographic changes had far-reaching consequences for American society, politics, and culture.


To understand why the 80s experienced such an identifiable demographic shift you must first know what lead up to it. It's roots are in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which lifted restrictions on immigrants nationality. This Act opened the door to allow Immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. 7 Million immigrants came into the U.S. during the 1980s due to this Act.

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Latino Immigrants

Latino Immigrants were the largest, most important immigrant group in the 1980s. The largest group of these Latinos were Mexicans, especially to Texas and California. 60% of these immigrants lived in these states, even beginning to outnumber African Americans.

Another Notable group of Latino Immigrants were poor cuban Immigrants, or "marielitos", as well as other less fortunate immigrants from Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Peru.

Asian Immigrants

A larger amount of Asian immigrants came into the U.S. than they had previously. In particular, were the Chinese, which soon replaced Japanese as the leading Asian Immigrant group. After the Chinese, came Filipino and Korean Immigrants.

Native Americans

While these do not necessarily count as "immigrants", their population grew and migrated to the sunbelt a lot contributing to demographic changes in the 80s. In 1980, there were double the amount of Native Americans than there were the past decade. As with other immigrants, they were focused in sun belt states (California, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, and North Carolina).


Immigration was a force present since the 1960s, and covered a period where immigration greatly increased, both legal and illegal. This period started after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and caused increased immigration from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.

As for the Sunbelt's growth, it had pull factors for agricultural work for Latin Immigrants and warm climate for those northerners moving south.


The Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986)

The increase of immigrants sparked debate over immigration policy. People were worried about large scale immigration separating society, the effects on the economy, and the problem of Illegal Immigration. The Immigration Reform and Control Act was the major piece of legislation to come out in the 80s regarding immigration, in particular to combat illegal immigration.
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Provision I

The first provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act was was was called Legalization, or "amnesty". As long as an immigrant was in the U.S prior to January 1, 1982, they could become a legal immigrant.


  1. Become a legal immigrant which makes you a temporary resident alien (TRA).
  2. Become a permanent resident alien (PRA) 18 months after becoming a TRA.
  3. Become naturalized (become a U.S. Citizen) after 5 years.

This provision was overseen by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) who proceeded applications for legalization. This provision was very successful in legalizing immigrants, particularly from Latin America.

Provision II

The second provision focused on employment sanctions. It made it prohibited for employers to knowingly hire an illegal immigrant, as to deter illegal immigrants to coming to the U.S. for jobs. The provision said that employers must look a legal documentation to ensure the immigrant's status, and must be inspected to see if they had violated the provision. But due to the impracticality of all employers being inspected, and the ease of faking legal documentation, this provision was greatly a failure, especially in comparison to the first provision.

Demographic Changes

Whites started to become a minority in America during this time period. It is predicted that white people will no longer constitute a majority of the American population in the span of 40 years.
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The Sun Belt

Increased immigration to Southern and Western states, especially from Latin America and Asia, grew the “Sun Belt” of Texas, California, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida. The political power in this area also grew with its population. 90% of all population growth was in the Sun Belt.

This also caused a political shift to the Sunbelt, as evident by the North and Mideast losing 17 seats in congress to South and West in the 1980s.

Cities in the North raised their taxes more than the South and West due to their rising industry and population as a side effect of immigration. The Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition questioned if it was possible for the South and West to rebuild what the north already had, and sparked debate between the two sides.