Just a generation ago, an American with Kamala Harris’s particular biracial heritage would have been highly unusual. Due to changes in immigration laws in the 1960s, it’s not much of an anomaly today.
Harris’s parents met in California in the early 1960s, when they were both completing PhDs at the University of California, Berkeley. Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, had immigrated from the region of Tamil Nadu in India and Donald Harris, her father, had come from Jamaica. At the time, they both belonged to very small minorities in the US. In 1960, there were less than 20,000 people born in India in the US, and less than 120,000 people from the West Indies. (The West Indies is defined in the US Census as the English and French speaking countries in the Caribbean, and includes Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad, among others).
From 1980 to 2018, the number of people claiming Indian origin, like Harris’s mother, grew eight times larger, from just 0.13% of the population to over 1%. The share of people claiming West Indian ancestry more than tripled from 0.25% to nearly 0.8% of the US population. (If people gave multiple answers, the Census records their first answer as their primary ancestry.) This makes these ancestry groups two of the fastest growing in the US over this period.
The fact that Harris’s background is not so unusual in the US today is primarily the result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It abolished national-origins quotas established in the 1920s. The quotas were designed to preserve the makeup of the immigrant population in the US as it was in the 1890s. At that time, most immigrants were from western European countries, like England, France, and Germany.
Civil rights activists fought against these quotas, which they deemed racist, eventually leading to the 1965 Act. The new law prioritized giving visas to people with family already in the US and highly skilled immigrants. A maximum of 20,000 visas were given to people from any country on a given year. The law would dramatically change the size and composition of immigration to the US. Only about 5% of the US population was foreign-born in 1965; by 2018, that share was almost 14%. The law also led to a surge in the number of Asian, African, and Latin American immigrants, specifically people from India and the countries that make up the West Indies.
Kamala Harris’s parents came to the US as students before the 1965 Act. But it is because of this law that Harris’s multi-ethnic Indian and Jamaican background won’t seem as surprising to many American voters as it would have a generation ago.