Remembering JFK : His Nation of Immigrants (Part Two)
In 1957, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) asked then-Senator John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts to write a piece about immigrant contributions to the United States at a time when there was a rancorous debate about immigrants and immigration policy. It was, according to ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, a period marked by “nativism, bigotry, and fear of competition from foreign labor” which was “dulling the collective American memory of its own immigrant history and its ideals.”
In 1958, Kennedy responded with a book entitled A Nation of Immigrants. In 2008, his brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy, noted in the Introduction to the 50th anniversary release of the book that “no one spoke more eloquently about our history and heritage as a nation of immigrants or fought harder on behalf of fair and rational immigration laws than President Kennedy”. This short and concise book successfully captured the energy and spirit of immigrants and their contribution to the great American experiment.
While some railed against immigration policy and immigrants claiming that foreigners ‘just can’t learn English’ nor ‘seem interested in assimilating to American culture’, JFK viewed diverse cultures and populations as a positive force creating opportunities to craft solutions to new and unique problems. He saw the interaction of peoples with their character forged by a determination and grit to make new lives for themselves in a strange new land as a “peculiarly American social revolution”. Citing poet Walt Whitman’s Preface to his Leaves of Grass, published on July 4, 1855, Kennedy declared that the United States “are the amplest poem, here is not merely a nation but a teeming Nation of nations.”
And what drew people to the United States? According to President Kennedy, three primary themes ran through the stories of the throngs who immigrated here: escape from religious persecution, political oppression, and economic hardship. The fact, argued JFK, that many fled religious persecution created an insistence on religious tolerance in the United States. “People who gambled their lives on the right to believe in their own God would not lightly surrender that right in a new society.”
While discussing flight from political oppression, Kennedy observed that the United States has always been a refuge from tyranny. He noted that our nation was at that time in the throes of the Cold War with the Communist suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and battles with the Castro regime in Cuba. “All have brought new thousands seeking sanctuary in the United States.”
Economic hardship has been another theme throughout our country’s history. “From the very beginning, some have come to America in search of riches, some in flight from poverty and some because they were bought and sold and had no choice.” The desire for a better life, JFK maintained, was a key factor in the development of American ingenuity and creativity.
But, this has not come without conflict. In compelling fashion, President Kennedy described the country’s history of xenophobia and nativism with the emergence of several groups troubled by the influx of peoples deemed ‘inferior’. He mentioned, in passing, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, Know-Nothing Party, American Protective Association, Immigration Restriction League.
Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, and the Ku Klux Klan. But, this anti-immigrant sentiment never took full root, as Kennedy noted, “nativism failed, not because the seeds were not there to be cultivated, but because American society is too complex for an agitation so narrowly and viciously conceived to be politically successful.”
Nonetheless, some efforts restricting immigration were successful. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act denying Chinese laborers entry for ten years was passed and renewed in 1892 for another ten year period followed by suspension of Chinese immigration for good. In 1897, Congress failed to impose a literacy test on adult immigrants but successfully overrode President Wilson’s veto in 1917, ensuring that it went into effect.
World War I and isolationist zeal led to even greater efforts to close the door to immigrants seeking entry into the United States. As President Kennedy noted, perhaps the most significant comprehensive legislation to come about was the National Origins Act that was adopted in 1924.
This piece of legislation set a ceiling on the number of immigrants allowed entry and established, in the words of JFK, “discriminatory national-racial quotas.” The National Origins Act severely limited the numbers of Southern and Eastern European immigrants allowed into the United States and for all practical purposes eliminated any immigration by Asians.
Deeply dismayed by the deficiencies of the immigration system at the time, President Kennedy called for repeal of the national origins quota system. In fact, he insisted on this in an address to Congress on July 23, 1963, specifically recommending legislation be passed which rejected immigrants’ national origins and, rather, took into account their skills and talents in relation to our nation’s needs; their family relationships with persons already here, thereby encouraging family reunification; and giving parents of U.S. citizens a preferred rather than nonquota status.
President Kennedy forcefully argued that “immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.” In his book, Kennedy argued strongly and eloquently for an immigration system that reflected the values of the founders and affirmed our nation’s commitment to equality as we move forward in this great American experiment. Unfortunately, he failed to see this come to fruition given his assassination on November 22, 1963.
Notwithstanding this tragic event, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, signed into law the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965. Thanking JFK for his vision, President Johnson proceeded to proclaim that the dreaded national origins quota system was abolished and replaced by a more equitable system taking into account one’s skills and close ties to family members already here.
Johnson declared that “we can now believe that it [national origins quota system] will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege. Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide. The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources — because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.”
John F. Kennedy was without doubt a complex and flawed leader and arguably subject to criticism for some of his decisions and actions. But, he also held and shared a vision for the United States that encompassed a desire for a different America, one which embraced diversity, sought equal opportunity for all, and most importantly gave people hope for better days ahead.
R. Mark Frey is a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has been practicing immigration law exclusively for 25 years with an emphasis on political asylum, family immigration, naturalization, removal defense, and appeals.