John F. Kennedy and Immigration Reform Before the Presidency
Mary Brown, Ph.D.
November 22, 2023
FROM THE ARCHIVE
John F. Kennedy and Immigration Reform Before the Presidency
Mary Brown, Ph.D.
Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which occurred on November 22, 1963. To honor President Kennedy, the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) presents material from its archives documenting Kennedy’s long history of commitment to immigration legislation that benefited the United States and immigrants themselves.
‘A Nation of Immigrants,’ President Kennedy’s brief for immigration reform.
The story starts in the offices of the precursor of the present-day US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Migration and Refugee Service and the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) Bureau of Immigration – the papers of which are in the CMS archives. The Bureau of Immigration had two field offices: one at the Mexican border at El Paso and the other in New York City. These field offices assisted immigrants on their journeys, usually by ensuring they complied with immigration laws.
The most important law was the McCarran-Walter Act, passed in 1952. The law perpetuated a system first put in place in the 1920s, awarding thousands of visas to northern and western European nations, a few thousand in southern and eastern Europe, and a mere hundred to the few independent countries in Africa and Asia. (Because of the Monroe Doctrine, the Western Hemisphere was exempt.) Visa distribution was exceptionally hard for international adoptions; children approved for adoptions might grow up before receiving visas.
However, the law forbade the immigration of Communist Party members. It was seen as a legal attempt to restrict certain countries’ communist groups from entering the country. At the time, there was an extreme fear of the spread of communist ideology in the United States. But, as Harry Truman noted, when he vetoed the law, many people joined the Communist Party under compulsion. The McCarran Act was one of many problematic laws. While the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 distributed visas to individual refugees, it created problems when governments targeted individuals but not their spouses or children, which meant that one person had a credible fear of persecution. Still, the rest of the family did not–they lacked reasonable fears of persecution and failed to qualify for visas.
S. 2792, Senator Kennedy’s proposed immigration reforms.
Given these many problems, Bruce Mohler, Director of the Bureau of Immigration, was pleased to receive an invitation from Mr. Jerry Siegel, an aide to Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, to attend a meeting on immigration reform. Kennedy had voted against the 1952 McCarran Act as a member of the House of Representatives. That summer, he was elected to the Senate. By then, he had also developed a strategy. Rather than overhaul the McCarran-Walter Act, he would offer amendments to address minor but pressing problems. In this strategy, he found an unlikely ally in the McCarran-Walter Act’s author, Pennsylvania Congressional Representative Francis Walter. He was savvy enough to realize that cooperating with opponents on issues that mattered to them might secure their cooperation on an issue that mattered to him.
Siegel had invited Mohler by telephone, so Mohler thought the meeting would be a one-on-one conversation. Still, when he got to the Senate office building, he found another Kennedy staffer and representatives from other groups concerned with immigration law: the Lutheran Council, the Jewish Congress, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (like the NCWC, a hands-on immigrant-aid agency), the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and the National Council of Churches. The Majority Leader and Texas Democratic Senator Lyndon B. Johnson was also interested in this meeting, as he understood several legislators were drafting immigration legislation and did not want to introduce bills that stood no chance of passing.
At that point, meeting attendees were presented with three bills: Senator Kennedy’s, Representative Walter’s, and one from Everett Dirksen, a Republican Senator from Illinois. Mr. Mohler remarked that he equally accepted all three but that the Kennedy and Walter bills seemed to be the Senate and House versions of the same proposal, so perhaps the next step would be to reconcile those two. In the spirit of compromise, he also declared himself willing to accept two conditions important to Representative Walter. One was to leave the national origins quotas untouched. The other was to leave intact the issue of Hungarian refugees. In 1956, the Soviet Union crushed a rebellion in Hungary, sending the rebels over the Austrian border for safety.
President Eisenhower used his executive power to admit thousands of Hungarian refugees to the United States. Still, he had no authority to fix their permanent status in the country, and Congress had let them languish for fear that spies and saboteurs might hide among legitimate refugees. Mohler would let them languish a little longer if he could get more visas for orphans and refugee families and set up more nuanced vetting of refugees from communist countries. The aides listened to Mohler and his colleagues and took notes. Kennedy never appeared, but Senator Johnson stopped to share his fears that nothing might get done.
News coverage indicated the extent of opposition to immigration reform and the need for grassroots support in favor of Kennedy’s bill.
On August 6, Kennedy’s bill moved to more public hearings in the Senate, where it became clear why Johnson was worried. President Eisenhower may have thought he was sheltering refugees from the Hungarian revolt against communism. Conservatives feared he had paroled “an almost unlimited number of aliens” from dubious backgrounds. The only good thing one could say about the hearings was that these conservative, patriotic groups focused so much of their remarks on opposing any change to the quota system that they neglected to warn about changing the visa rules for orphans or other items in Kennedy’s legislation.
About the time of the hearings, James O. Eastland, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, thought it beneficial to give proponents of immigration reform the same platform the opponents had received. Senator Eastland invited Mr. Mohler to state his views on the pending legislation. Not in a closed-door meeting with staffers like with Siegal, but a form for the whole Congress to study. On August 13, Mohler wrote out his ideas. He called the McCarran-Walter Act an improvement over its predecessors but made the obvious point that all laws must change with the times. He praised the Dirksen, Kennedy, and Walter bills as equally appropriate and highlighted their standard proposals. However, instead of using precious paragraphs on the morals that ought to govern immigration law, he raised a particular concern of Catholics: the desirability of visas specifically for religious workers so they could be more efficiently assigned to work in schools, hospitals, and other institutions. The NCWC was pleased that Senator Eastland had publicly asked for the commentary of one of its experts at a time when the bill was before Congress.
The NCWC was proud of being asked to comment on legislation and ready to take advantage of the offer.
Kennedy’s bill went through the Senate and House in the last days of August. President Eisenhower signed it into law as P.L. 85-316 on September 11. Mr. Mohler telegraphed Senator Kennedy at the Senator Office Building and Representative Walter at Georgetown Hospital, where he was recovering from a broken hip. All that remained was to deal with the New York Port Office, where the Office Director had many local reporters but not enough specific information about how the new law might change immigration.
Most of those associated with P.L. 85-316 agreed it made no significant changes but represented what could be done then. Kennedy also lost no time where immigration was concerned. In 1958, he collaborated with the Jewish Anti-Defamation League in releasing A Nation of Immigrants. If he couldn’t propose a legislative alternative to Walter’s quota system, he could make his opposition known in this essay. When he ran for president in 1960, he made immigration such an issue that his rival, Richard Nixon, was forced to propose his immigration reforms. Nixon’s proposals for a reformed quota system showed Kennedy’s innovative thinking.
Senator Kennedy’s immigration law became the new standard under which immigration aid agencies operated.
When he became president, Kennedy lost some control of his agenda. The Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin into space in April 1961, built the Berlin Wall in June 1961, and precipitated the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. Similarly, racist response to legitimate civil rights action forced Kennedy to push civil rights higher up his agenda. A personal tragedy derailed immigration reform. Representative Walter was only sixty-eight years old when President Kennedy took office. Though he was in declining health, it seemed unkind to threaten his control of his immigration legacy while he was in and out of the hospital. Walter died of leukemia on May 31, 1963.
On June 11, President Kennedy held a photo op in the White House Rose Garden with the American Committee on Italian Migration, one of many grassroots groups working for immigrant reform, to announce pending legislation. He sent the legislation to Congress on July 17. However, his assassination in November of that year deferred its passage until 1965. Kennedy’s commitment to immigration in the United States had been visible through various policies and reforms to ease the immigration pathways. The late President had always wanted to provide a welcoming environment for immigrants, as he believed in the significant value immigrants have in diversifying the country. Kennedy’s legacy in immigration is notable through his support for refugees and civil rights.
President Kennedy welcoming allies in immigration reform: the American Committee for Italian Migration at the Rose Garden, June 11, 1963.
November 22, 2023