Legacies of the 1965 US Immigration Reforms 

Eileen Boris
21 October 2023

The 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration and Naturalization Act severely curtailed immigration of care workers to the United States, creating a significant care deficit in many families.

Fixing the shortage of care and domestic workers through changing the immigration system has a checkered history. By the 1960s, when African American women rejected “maid work,” as California welfare rights leader Catherine Jermany called even home healthcare jobs, employment agencies and nurse registries had turned to “import” what government officials named “alien” workers for live-in household positions. There was a problem, however: the classification of household workers–which included cleaners, cooks, nannies, and personal attendants for the elderly and those with disabilities — as unskilled under the rules devised by the Department of Labor (DOL) to implement the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration and Naturalization Act. Their placement under schedule “B” would nearly eliminate the permitted entry of household help.

Reforming the preference system for admitting immigrants into the US, Hart-Celler gave preference to professional talent and family reunification, while ending unrestricted entry from the Western Hemisphere. It sought to protect US-born workers from competition from both skilled and unskilled labor by requiring prospective immigrants (usually by way of would-be employers) to obtain labor certification from the DOL, which denied entry if US-born workers could be hired for the position and if the conditions of the job would adversely impact wages, hours, and other standards. By the time the rules took effect in July 1968, the greatest number of applications were for household workers. These were not the laborers that organized labor and the Johnson administration had in mind when they sought to control the labor market and impede importation of strikebreakers, especially when it came to agribusiness.

The 1965 act threatened the livelihood of labor brokers, who aided professional- and business-class white women seeking to meet family responsibilities while continuing their own employment by obtaining live-in maids. During a truncated comment period in late 1965, they protested to the DOL that modern urban life required live-in maids to care for children and the home. Day workers, they explained, were less reliable because they had their own households to care for and were at the mercy of bad weather and delayed transportation. Sometimes expressing explicit anti-blackness, agencies and employers preferred docile but caring workers and were unwilling to meet the demands for respect and higher wages demanded by US Black women, who were on the eve of launching a national domestic workers movement

The flyer of the Household Agencies and Nurses Registries Association in October 1969 called on the new Nixon administration to act: “We are warning you . . . The unemployment and welfare problems of this country can NOT be solved by denying you the American Public, household help.” The flyer urged women to write to their congressmen to change immigration rules or working and professional women in every field will be forced to stay home in the role of homemaker because they would not be able to obtain household help. Indeed, Senators and Representatives sent appeals from their constituents to the DOL to reconsider visas for live-in maids. The employers won a new rule that restricted “importation of live-in domestic help to households in which there are working mother with children of preschool age,” with care of “invalids” an exception for other households.

I’ve found hundreds of requests in the National Archives — employers pleading for reconsideration of rejected applications to grant visas to immigrant domestic and care workers.  These petitions illuminate a crisis in social reproduction that developed amid the rights revolution when African American women sought better jobs and the new feminism encouraged women’s labor force participation. With neither men taking up the slack nor widespread social welfare provision, employing an immigrant woman offered a way to juggle family and paid work. As the employer class longed for the cheap labor available in the aftermath of racial slavery, a traffic in immigrant women’s labor power fit the bill.

This policy moment of sixty odd years ago differs from current efforts to include domestic and care workers as a preferred category of labor under immigration reform in one important respect. Led by the National Domestic Worker Alliance, first under the banner of “We Belong Together,” and its related organization– Caring Across Generations–recent pushes for immigrant care workers come from workers themselves rather than for-profit employment agencies. Setting living wages and decent working conditions is integral to such reform, and those proposing such are less often from trade unions that, in the mid-1960s, did not yet recognize domestic and care workers as workers or potential members. So, while households of all sorts continue to suffer from a care deficit, those turning to immigrant women of color as the solution are now led by advocates from communities already doing the necessary and essential labor that others depend upon. 

Author’s webpage Eileen Boris

The cover picture is designed by Nancy Folbre.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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