Kennedy and Immigration: He Changed the Face of America

Gail Russell Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor, August 28, 2009

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From the 1965 overhaul that ended a system of national quotas to the failed drive launched in 2007 for comprehensive reform, Kennedy has been at the front lines making the case for a more open immigration system.

Taking a long view–compromising when needed, reaching for more the next time–he achieved it.

Senator Kennedy’s tactics varied and coalition partners shifted during his 47 years in the Senate, but the core principle he defended never varied: The US is a nation of immigrants, he said.

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1965: Quotas

In 1965, Kennedy led the drive for immigration reform in the Senate. Although some Irish groups lobbied against the bill, Kennedy said the current system of national quotas that favored northern Europe violated the American values.

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In response to critics, he also famously claimed that the change to a system opening immigration to all nations and favoring family unification would not change the mix of the country.

“The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs,” he said during the Senate debate.

In retrospect, the mix of immigrants, legal and illegal, shifted dramatically in favor of Latin America and Asia–a fact that Kennedy, in later years, would attribute to illegal immigration.

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1980: Refugees

In 1980, Kennedy drafted the Refugee Act of 1980, which set up a system to qualify for political asylum consistent with international law. The numbers seeking refugee status–1.1 million in the first 10 years–exceeded expectations.

1986: Amnesty

In the campaign for the 1986 amnesty law, Kennedy predicted that the law would grant citizenship to no more than 1.3 million people. “We will secure the borders henceforth. We will never again bring forward another amnesty bill like this,” he said.

But by 2007, the number of people in the country illegally had jumped to more than 12 million.

His later years

Kennedy also drafted legislation in 1990 to expand opportunities for citizenship to skilled workers and, more recently, to open doors for Iraqi refugees.

At the end of this Senate career, he was working on a comprehensive immigration plan that would propose a path to citizenship for some 12 million people now in the US illegally, as well as stronger border enforcement and employee sanctions.

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