John F. Kennedy and Immigration Reform

May 5, 2020
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America's immigration policy was turned upside down in 1965. The Immigration Reform and Nationality Act of 1965 represents the most significant turning point when immigration policy no longer represented the interests of America and Americans.

The article John F. Kennedy and Immigration Reform, by Ira Mehlman (The Social Contract, Summer, 1991) describes how John F. Kennedy paved the way for our disastrous immigration policy shift. Excerpts are included below:

For our "What's past is prologue" department we remind readers that the Immigration Act of 1965 was the first revision of US immigration policy since 1924, and that the impetus for it came mostly from a policy statement found in a little-remembered book by John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants (New York: Anti-Defamation League, 1958). Ira Mehlman, a freelance writer in Washington DC, explores the connections between the book and the subsequent legislation.

In the history of publishing it would be hard to find a book, published by a relatively small press and with almost no public notice, containing ideas that have had a greater and more long-lasting impact on public policy than John F. Kennedy's 1958 treatise, A Nation of Immigrants. The ideas expressed in A Nation of Immigrants (though Kennedy was certainly not the only one expressing them) ultimately became the basis for the immigration reforms of 1965 which, to this day, stand as the foundation of US im-migration policy....

It is not hard to detect a degree of bitterness in the writings of a man whose ethnic origins and religion were seen as obstacles to his reaching the White House. Kennedy caustically suggests a few additions to Emma Lazarus' poem A New Colossus which welcomes the world's tired and poor to America's shores As long as they come from Northern Europe, are not too tired or too poor or slightly ill...

In the American Jewish community, Kennedy found a natural ally on the issue of immigration reform. The shame and guilt of American Jews about their failure to do more to save European Jewry from the Holocaust still lingers today, and was all the more palpable so soon after the event. To this day, there is a strong feeling that, had it not been for the highly restrictive immigration policies of the US (and other countries), many of Europe's Jews could have been saved. Thus, it is not surprising that in 1958 the ADL not only endorsed, but published Kennedy's calls for a more liberal US immigration policy....

Like so many of Kennedy's ideas, his views on immigration were not fulfilled in his lifetime, but rather became part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. And, like so many of the well-intended programs of the Great Society, the immigration reforms Kennedy called for went well beyond their original intent and produced many unforeseen consequences....

In place of the national origin quota system Kennedy, first in his book, and later as President, called for the institution of an immigration policy that judges all applicants on an equal footing....

What Kennedy clearly did not call for was a massive increase in the number of immigrants being admitted to the United States....

It is also worth noting that the original release of A Nation of Immigrants coincided with the peak of the post-World War II baby boom in the United States. In 1958 the Saturday Evening Post was again the first to recognize the dangers of runaway population growth and its connection with immigration. Long before it was the vogue the Post was writing about the need to limit population growth...

When President Kennedy sent his historic message to Congress in 1963 calling for a complete revision of the immigration law, he decided it was also time to revise the book for use as a weapon of enlightenment in the coming legislative battle. ...

In the year following the second publication of A Nation of Immigrants, Congress incorporated many of the ideas in the book (along with many that were not) into the sweeping 1965 revisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. In retrospect, a quarter of a century later, it is now evident that these reforms were, in every respect, a component of what became known as the Great Society. Proposed and enacted with the very best of intentions, these changes set off a chain of events that few anticipated....

... if the volume of immigration continues to explode, and we maintain domestic policies that continue to balkanize our increasingly diverse population, the immigration reforms of 1965 may eventually prove to be antithetical to basic American unity....

Since 1965 there have been seven amnesties for illegal aliens. Congress has dramatically increased the level of mass immigration while leaving our borders virtually wide open - all against the wishes of the American people. We are now living in a country vastly different from the America of 1965 - an America that John F. Kennedy would hardly recognize.