Obama Victory Took Root in Kennedy-Inspired Immigration Act

Peter S. Canellos, Boston Globe, November 11, 2008

Barack Obama’s victory last week triggered an immediate accounting of debts to be paid off in constructing his new administration. There were those who speculated that Obama would be building a White House staff of loyal old Chicago hands. Others foresaw a bevy of Clintonistas. And still others had a vision of a kind of Kennedy redux that wags quickly dubbed “Obamalot.”

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{snip} But the greatest Kennedy legacy to Obama isn’t Ted or Caroline or Bobby Jr., but rather the Immigration Act of 1965, which created the diverse country that is already being called Obama’s America.

That act is rarely mentioned when recounting the high points of 1960s liberalism, but its impact arguably rivals the Voting Rights Act, the creation of Medicare, or other legislative landmarks of the era. It transformed a nation 85 percent white in 1965 into one that’s one-third minority today, and on track for a nonwhite majority by 2042.

Before the act, immigration visas were apportioned based on the demographic breakdown that existed at the time of the 1920 Census—meaning that there were few if any limits on immigrants from Western and Northern Europe, but strict quotas on those from elsewhere.

The belief that the United States should remain a nation of European lineage was openly discussed when immigration laws were revisited in 1952. The resulting bill, the McCarran-Walter Act, was notorious for giving the State Department the right to exclude visitors for ideological reasons, meaning that a raft of left-wing artists and writers—including Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, British novelist Graham Greene—and scores of others were denied visas. But it also had the effect of maintaining the 1920s-era notion of the United States as a white nation. (Congress imposed the bill over President Truman’s veto.)

A decade later, attitudes were changing, and President Kennedy proposed a new immigration structure that would no longer be based on national origins. After Kennedy’s assassination, his brother Ted took up the fight, pushing the Johnson administration to go even further than it wanted in evening the playing field. Though Lyndon Johnson, in signing the bill, tried to reassure opponents that it wouldn’t do much to change the balance of immigration, its impact was dramatic.

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Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank NDN, formerly the New Democrat Network, calls the Immigration Act of 1965 “the most important piece of legislation that no one’s ever heard of,” and said it “set America on a very different demographic course than the previous 300 years.”

By adding so many Asians, Latinos, and African immigrants, Rosenberg says, the act changed the racial narrative in America from one of oppression—the white-black divide dating to slavery—to one of diversity. That change was strongly echoed in the Obama campaign, which emphasized the candidate’s mixed-race background as making him representative of a new generation of Americans.

That generation has its roots in the Immigration Act of 1965, and the act had its roots in the Kennedys. Obamalot may be the modern reflection of JFK’s New Frontier, after all.

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