A little-known law that radically changed America

Roundup
tags: immigration



Ted Widmer is a trustee of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Thumbnail Image - "Migrant Worker by David Shankbone" by David Shankbone - David Shankbone (own work). Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons.

… In the year JFK was elected, the McCarran-Walter Act was drafted by Congress, which largely kept in place the restrictions of 1924, and added new restrictions against left-wing “subversives.” Truman vetoed that bill, but Congress overturned it, and the quotas stayed on the books.

Kennedy began to chip away at the injustices of the bill, in speeches and writings that celebrated American diversity. In 1958, in collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League, he published a short book, “A Nation of Immigrants.” Less renowned than “Profiles in Courage,” it nevertheless staked an important position for the debate to come. Kennedy’s election to the presidency two years later gave him an immense platform from which to revisit the issue.

This he began to do in the summer of 1963. He sent Congress a recommendation that it write a new immigration law that “reflects in every detail the principles of equality and human dignity to which our nation subscribes.”

He didn’t live to see the bill passed, but Lyndon Johnson ably converted the new thinking into legislative reality. In January 1965, in one of the most sweeping State of the Union messages ever delivered, LBJ declared his intention to pass “an immigration law based on the work a man can do and not where he was born or how he spells his name.”

Johnson asked a freshman senator, Edward M. Kennedy, to floor manage the bill. Kennedy was obviously carrying the torch of his older brother, but he brought his own special qualities to the task. He could remember handing out leaflets in the North End as a 14-year-old, during his older brother’s first run for Congress in 1946, and he recalled the passion of his grandfather, who “believed that fair and just immigration policies, for the people of all nations, were very important to our country, and often expressed this to his grandchildren.”

There were many obstacles to navigate, including Boston Irish who were not eager to see floods of new immigrants, and conservative Southern senators. Kennedy’s memoir, “True Compass,” recounts a meeting with Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, during which Kennedy received a crucial committee assignment for immigration reform. While asking him all about the “Eye-talians of Boston,” Eastland distributed a great deal of scotch, most of which Kennedy was able to pour into his plants when the ancient senator was not looking.

The bill passed overwhelmingly in the House (320 to 70) and the Senate (76 to 18), with strong bipartisan support, unimaginable today….




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