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Kennedy’s Immigration Legacy Shaped Makeup of U.S.

August 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez examines the impacts of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, one of Sen. Edward Kennedy's earliest and most-enduring pieces of legislation.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Over the past few days, much has been written and said about Edward Kennedy’s imprint on a wide spectrum of issues, from health care, to poverty, to education, and more.

But one area of special interest to him has received little attention. That’s immigration.

And it’s the focus of this report from Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: As a first-term senator, Edward Kennedy championed the rewriting of America’s restrictive immigration laws drafted in the 1920s. He fought hard for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 signed by President Lyndon Johnson.

And as America inches towards majority minority status, with the descendants of European immigrants a declining share of the population, the face of today’s America is the one Kennedy’s efforts helped create, for better…

CLARISSA MARTINEZ, director, Immigration and National Campaigns, National Council of La Raza: I think it is fair to say that Senator Kennedy was one of the architects of the America of the future.

RAY SUAREZ: … or for worse.

DAN STEIN, president, Federation for American Immigration Reform: So, the ’65 act essentially put immigration on autopilot.

RAY SUAREZ: By the time of the John Kennedy administration, America had absorbed the huge Ellis Island generations of immigrants, who poured in from Europe from roughly 1880 to 1920.

President Kennedy, whose great-grandparents came to Boston from Ireland, supported scrapping the existing quota system that used 19th century America’s ethnic makeup as a template for letting in new arrivals, favoring Europeans, and effectively sealing off newcomers from the rest of the world.

On the Senate floor in 2007, Senator Kennedy looked back on his role in passing the ’65 Immigration Act with pride.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY, D-Mass.: It was in this chamber, a number of years ago, that we knocked down the great walls of discrimination on the basis of race; that we knocked down the walls of discrimination on the basis of religion.

We knocked them down with regards to national origin. We knocked them down with regards to gender. We have knocked them down with regards to disability here in the Senate.

Changing face of immigration

ALAN KRAUT, history professor, American University: When Lyndon Johnson signed the bill at the base of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965, he said that this bill was correcting a cruel and enduring wrong.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Alan Kraut is a scholar of American immigration history at American University.

ALAN KRAUT: The origins of who's coming to the United States as an immigrant has changed dramatically.

Yes, in the early part of the 20th century and even in the mid-20th century, it was largely Southern and Eastern Europeans who were coming to the United States in great numbers. Indeed, between 1880 and the 1920s, it was 23.5 million came, the great majority of them from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Today, it's very largely Southeast Asians, Latinos from Mexico, from Central America. It's a much different immigration.

RAY SUAREZ: Different, in part, because it was a chain migration, not only opening up to the developing world, but giving preferences to families with members already here.

Dan Stein is executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, FAIR, and a critic of current immigration law.

DAN STEIN: Historically, the view has been -- at least was through much of the 20th century -- and, certainly, we think it should be now -- is that, if you want to bring somebody here, they should bring their spouse and unmarried minor children.

But you have to use a rule of reason and say, listen, if you -- you know, in this day and age in particular, with the ease of transportation and mobility and other communications, if you want to go visit your aunt and uncle and your adult married brothers and sisters, siblings, go home and visit. You can't start a chain of migration that goes on years and years and years.

And, so, quickly, by -- certainly, by 1970, it had become apparent that the system of chain migration had become unworkable.

Evolution of chain migration

RAY SUAREZ: The new law made it easier for families like the Kims. Jina Kim's family began heading to America in the early 1970s.

JINA KIM, Attorney: The oldest son, my uncle, he and his wife came because his wife's family had invited her as a sibling. So, they -- after they came in 1971, they sponsored and invited their parents, which is my grandparents. That -- they came, and then next, it was us, and then my dad had five brothers under him.

Thank you very much. Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: So, beginning with her uncle less than 40 years ago, the Kim family now numbers more than 60. Dan Stein insists , the 1965 reforms were needed and rooted in human rights, but complains that Senator Kennedy was never willing to go back and fix his legislative handiwork.

DAN STEIN: Because immigration is often fashioned in the Judiciary Committees by lawyers, who are completely detached from the actual consequences and costs associated with medical care and housing and infrastructure issues, you have this detachment that made it possible for people like Ted Kennedy to never come back and say, you know, the spirit of the '65 act was fine, it was noble, but, as a practical matter, it needs some tweaking.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Kraut says the unintended consequences don't stop there. While changing the makeup of America, the 1965 law helped create the pitched battles over immigration today.

ALAN KRAUT: Prior to 1965, Mexican immigrants could come to the United States virtually at will. After 1965, because of the hemispheric quotas, it was much less easy for Mexicans to come across. The result is large numbers came across in an undocumented fashion. And, today, one of the issues that faces the Congress and faces the president is how to deal with the problem of unauthorized or undocumented immigrants.

Immigration as a domestic issue

RAY SUAREZ: Clarissa Martinez came to this country from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant, and became an American citizen. Now director of immigration for the National Council of La Raza, the country's largest Latino civil rights organization, she looks at the Kennedy record and recalls that 1965 was the middle of the Cold War.

Today, she says, immigration is debated largely as a domestic or economic issue.

CLARISSA MARTINEZ: But, at the time, these steps on our immigration policy had to do with increasing America's standing in the world, and demonstrating that, if the country had an open door, people in other countries who had systems that we didn't agree with would choose to come here, and that would demonstrate that the American way of life was a desirable system.

JINA KIM: And this is a picture taken probably about 20, 25 years ago with all the grandkids.

RAY SUAREZ: At the time of the Senate debates over the Immigration and Nationality Act, Senator Kennedy reassured his fellow senators that the new law would not bring immigrants pouring into America's cities, and would not change the ethnic makeup of the country. He was wrong.

Without realizing it, Jina Kim and her large and now prosperous family is part of a new America created, in part, by Senator Kennedy.

JINA KIM: It's definitely impacted my life. And now that I know who started it all, I have renewed respect for him. And I do thank him and his family, I guess, for having sponsored that bill. I think I am the direct beneficiary of that bill.

RAY SUAREZ: Congress is now waiting for the president's proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. It will be the first major immigration law debated without Senator Kennedy in half-a-century.