Ted Kennedy, LBJ, and immigration reform

June 15, 2016 Rob Martin
courtesy of the National Archives
President Johnson signs the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

Upon taking office in 1963, one of the first issues President Johnson sought to tackle was immigration reform. The country’s immigration laws at the time gave preferential treatment to northern Europeans while severely restricting immigration from Asian and African countries. In his first State of the Union address, not two months after President Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson called on Congress to pass Kennedy’s immigration reform bill. Seeking to end the country’s discriminatory immigration practices, Johnson began working with the fallen president’s brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, to help build support for a bill in Congress. Immigration was an important issue for the young senator, which he saw both as a civil rights issue and as a fundamental question of fairness. Kennedy went on to co-sponsor Johnson’s immigration bill and managed it on the Senate floor. The bill expired with the close of the 88th Congress, but easily passed the following year after a compromise placing limits on Western Hemisphere immigration was reached. Johnson signed the historic 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act into law at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, ending the national-origins quota system.

Excerpts from the Miller Center’s Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project:

Senator Edward M. Kennedy: The Founding Fathers, as we all know, had a very open-door policy, and were welcoming. And obviously the Statue of Liberty and those marvelous quotes from [Emma] Lazarus are about welcoming the poorest of the poor into the United States. That was a different tradition than we saw both in the ’20s and then expressed most dramatically in the 1950s in the [Patrick] McCarran-[Francis] Walter immigration law that established quotas based on place of birth and put restrictions on the place of birth. 

There were other restrictions prior to that in other immigration bills, but these were probably the most notorious. They restricted the numbers of immigrants to just a small fraction of what the numbers had been before the real flow of immigrants began. I think the Portuguese got maybe four or five hundred. The Greeks got three or four hundred, the Italians maybe a thousand, and the Irish had thirty thousand. The Scandinavian countries were virtually unlimited. So it was very targeted.

Former Kennedy staffer David Burke: Our immigration policy at that time was so skewed, and so openly biased—it was just openly and shamelessly—we had an Asian-Pacific Triangle. If you’re Asian, you can’t come in here. We only let a handful in every year. And you’re lucky to get that… I mean, why?.. The Irish have a quota, a number—why can’t we have something like that? Why are they favored? Why are the Irish so favored? And something has to be done about that. Now, how is this son of Irish immigrants going to handle the cutback on Irish numbers, to cut back the number of Irish individuals in this country, in fact? Remember, we’re talking families and reunification and so on. Why do we have to get into this and—? But he [Kennedy] took it on. It just was not right. I think that that was my first surprise with him, that there were certain things that he is deaf on, and one is political advice like, “I’d stay away from that issue, that’s a killer.” That’s not a good way to open a conversation with him. He just looks at you sort of with a wonderment, like why are you—it’s just not fair.

Interviewer James Young: Johnson, I believe in his State of the Union in early [1964], came out very strongly for a policy change, immigration reform, and he picked up the bill, the Hart-Celler bill idea that your brother had inspired. There’s an account of a meeting he called at the White House at that time. It was a snowy day in January of [1964], just before or just after the State of the Union… you were there, a lot of Congressmen were there, and various immigration groups were there. This was written up in the New York Times. Johnson said, “This is something we’re going to do and we’re behind on it and we’re going to get it done.” That’s when immigration reform really got pretty high on the agenda, and you got very much involved in it. It was your first putting together of a coalition in the Senate, wasn’t it?

Kennedy: That’s right, yes. It was my first major piece of legislation, both in terms of shaping it and conducting the hearings on it, and getting it through the committee, and getting it to the floor, and effectively floor managing it. Johnson said that he wanted public accommodations in the Civil Rights Act. He had three or four major issues that my brother had been interested in, and he included this one, which was the green light and got the priority, got the notice from the leadership that the House was going to do the hearings and we were too.

U.S. Attorney General Nick Katzenbach: There was a good deal of pressure from some Senators—I think they were probably southern Senators—on immigration controls, particularly from Mexico for the border... It was perfectly all right to change a lot of the quotas as far as Europe and so forth was concerned. It was all right to open it up to some extent in Asia, but the real problem in the Senate, and the House, I guess, was always with the Latin American countries, and particularly with Mexico. They wanted strict limits on the number of immigrants.

Young: You gave a fairly full account of what the opposition was and the way you went about this; it was a very workmanlike job. Do you have any personal recollections?

Kennedy: The real issue at the time, which has resonated over the years, is the element of the discrimination that already exists in this country. And the second thing is the Immigration bill itself… When we got to the floor on the immigration reform bill, as I mentioned earlier, the one big stumbling block was the group of southerner and westerner Senators who wanted to get more control of immigration through a limitation of the Western Hemisphere flow. That delayed the bill a few days, and for a short period of time it made its passage somewhat uncertain. Eventually we were able to get an agreement taking this amendment, which put a limitation on the Western Hemisphere flow…

We’d have the support and eventually vote on the immigration bill, which in effect knocked out the national origins quota and the Asian Pacific triangle, which were the two most discriminatory aspects of the law, and the most egregious part of our immigration policies. We were able to get it passed by a vote that was very similar to the final votes on the civil rights bill, somewhere around 73 or 74 to 18. They had a signing ceremony at the Statue of Liberty.

Former Kennedy staffer Carey Parker: Immigrants were welcomed into this country for hundreds of years, because we needed them. There certainly was no such thing as illegal Irish immigrants coming into Boston when the Senator’s ancestors arrived here in the 19th century. In fact, Kennedy was a leader in the enactment of one of the first immigration reform bills in modern times, the Immigration Reform Act of 1965. It had a different rationale: to end what was called the Asian-Pacific triangle, which was very discriminatory against immigrants from Asia. Interestingly, I’ve seen comments in recent years that not enough credit has been given to the 1965 Act as a milestone of civil rights.

Young: It abolished national quotas.

Parker: Yes. The feeling has long been that the Civil Rights Act of ’64, the Voting Rights Act of ’65, and the Fair Housing Act of ’68 were the big three civil rights bills in the ’60s, obviously because they all had so much to do with segregation. But historians are now are saying that the Immigration Act of ’65 deserves to be one of the big four civil rights bill of that decade. It’s interesting that it passed in the same year as the original Voting Rights Act, which was a huge achievement by President Johnson.