John F. Kennedy on Immigration



OpEd: More immigrants today than in JFK's immigration book

To measure the immensity of the immigrant cohort, let us go back to John F. Kennedy's "A Nation of Immigrants", published in the run-up to the 1960 election. In it, the future president marvels at how many had come to these shores: "Between 1830 and 1930, the period of the greatest migration from Europe to the US, Germany sent 6 million people to the US--more than any other nation"

Using Kennedy's numbers, there are as many illegal aliens in the US today as all the German and Italian immigrants who ever came, the two largest immigrant groups in our history. Our foreign-born population today is almost equal to the 42 million who came over the 3-1/2 centuries from 1607 to 1965.

Source: State of Emergency, by Pat Buchanan, p. 9-10 , Oct 2, 2007

America's capacity to absorb immigration is limited

In 1897, Congress imposed a literacy test on immigrants, but it was vetoed by President Cleveland. Taft and Wilson vetoed similar bills; but in 1917, with war tension rising, Congress overrode Wilson's 2nd veto. By now, wrote JFK, "Those who were opposed to all immigration and all 'foreigners' were joined by those who believed sincerely, and with some basis in fact, that America's capacity to absorb immigration was limited."

Kennedy's stance is understandable, for in 1958, he was courting liberals and intellectuals in a bid for the presidency. And the political forebears of those liberals were progressives who had joined Negro leaders and union leaders in seeking to halt the waves of immigrant labor that were depressing wages and taking jobs from our native-born, both black and white.

Source: State of Emergency, by Pat Buchanan, p.229-30 , Oct 2, 2007

Don't make over the face of America with immigration

This was a time, recall, when 156,700/year was the quota limit, and JFK did not seem to object: "There is.a legitimate argument for some limitation upon immigration." And Kennedy reassured Americans that his proposal "does not seek to make over the face of America."

Indeed, in his litany of famous immigrants who have contributed mightily to America, JFK does not mention a single African or Asian, or any woman at all. All are males and all were from Europe, except one West Indian: Alexander Hamilton.

1950s: Voted for liberalized immigration laws

Jack was active in the fight for public housing; favored federal aid to parochial schools; sought to broaden social security; wanted higher minimum wage provisions; voted for liberalized immigration laws; and backed price controls. He opposed the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act.

Jack was not a liberal and did not seek that label. Congressman Kennedy repeatedly favored fiscal conservatism and often expressed wariness about big government.

Source: A Question of Character, by Thomas Reeves, p. 91 , Dec 10, 1997

Emigration decision brings incalculable uncertainty

Today, when mass communications tell one part of the world all about another, it is relatively easy to understand how poverty or tyranny might compel people to exchange an old nation for a new one. But centuries ago migration was a leap into the unknown. It was an enormous intellectual and emotional commitment. The forces that moved our forebears to their great decision--the decision to leave their homes and begin an adventure filled with incalculable uncertainty, risk and hardship--must have been of overpowering proportions.

Initially, they had to save up money for passage. Then they had to say goodbye to cherished relatives and friends, whom they could never expect to see again. Before they even reached the ports of embarkation, they were subject to illness, accidents, storm and snow, even to attacks by outlaws.

After arriving at the ports, they often had to wait days, weeks, sometimes months, while they bargained with captains or agents for passage.

Source: A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy, p. 4-5 , Jan 8, 1963

Italians came for economics, not religion nor repression

Large-scale immigration began in 1880, and almost 4 million Italian immigrants arrived in the present century.

Most Italians were peasants from the south. They came because of neither religious persecution nor political repression, but simply in search of a brighter future. Population in Italy was straining the limits of the country's resources and more and more people had to eke out a living from small plots of land, held in many instances by oppressive landlords.

Untrained in special skills and unfamiliar with the language, they had to rely on unskilled labor jobs to earn a living. Italians thus filled the gap left by earlier immigrant groups who had now moved up the economic ladder.

Source: A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy, p. 26-27 , Jan 8, 1963

We say same of Mexicans that we said about Irish & Italians

Today many of our newcomers are from Mexico & Puerto Rico. We sometimes forget that Puerto Ricans are US citizens by birth & therefore cannot be considered immigrants. Nonetheless, they often receive the same discriminatory treatment and opprobrium that were faced by other waves of newcomers. The same things are said today of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans that were once said of Irish, Italians, Germans and Jews: "They'll never adjust; they can't learn the language; they won't be absorbed."

Perhaps our brightest hope for the future lies in the lessons of the past. As each new wave of immigration has reached America it has been faced with problems, not only the problems that come with making new homes and new jobs, but, more important, the problems of getting along with people of different backgrounds and habits.

Somehow, the difficult adjustments are made and people get down to the tasks of earning a living, raising a family, living with their neighbors, and, in the process, building a nation.

Source: A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy, p. 31 , Jan 8, 1963

Opponents have called to stop immigration since 1797

From the start, immigration policy has been a prominent subject of discussion in America. This is as it must be in a democracy, where every issue should be freely considered and debated.

There was the basic ambiguity which older Americans have often shown toward newcomers. In 1797 a member of Congress argued that, while a liberal immigration policy was fine when the country was new and unsettled, now that America had reached its maturity and was fully populated, immigration should stop--an argument which has been repeated at regular intervals throughout American history.

But emotions of xenophobia--hatred of foreigners--and of nativism--the policy of keeping America "pure" (that is, of preferring old immigrants to new)--continued to thrive.

In the 1850's nativism became an open political movement. Still it remains a remarkable fact that, except for the Oriental Exclusion Act, there was no governmental response till after the First World War.

Source: A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy, p. 37-40 , Jan 8, 1963

Limiting specific nations defies "all men are created equal"

A qualified person born in England or Ireland who wants to emigrate to the US can do so at any time. A person born in Italy or Poland may have to wait many years. Such an idea is at complete variance with the American traditions and principles that the qualifications of an immigrant do not depend upon his country of birth, and violates the spirit that "all men are created equal." One writer has listed 6 motives behind the Act of 1924. They were:
  1. postwar isolationism
  2. the alleged superiority of Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic "races"
  3. the fear that "pauper labor" would lower wage levels
  4. the belief that people of certain nations were less law-abiding than others
  5. the fear of foreign ideologies and subversion
  6. the fear that entrance of too many people with different customs and habits would undermine our national and social unity and order.
All of these arguments can be found in Congressional debates on the subject and may be heard today.
Source: A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy, p. 43-44 , Jan 8, 1963

National origin quotas are indefensible racial preferences

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 undertook to codify all our national laws on immigration. This was a proper and long overdue task. The total racial bar against the naturalization of Japanese, Koreans and other East Asians was removed. Most important of all was the decision to do nothing about the national origins system.

The famous words of Emma Lazarus on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty read: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Until 1921 this was an accurate picture of our society. Under present law it would be appropriate to add: "as long as they come from Northern Europe, are not too tired or too poor or slightly ill, never stole a loaf of bread, never joined any questionable organization, and can document their activities for the past 2 years."

Furthermore, the national origins quota system has strong overtones of an indefensible racial preference. It is strongly weighted toward so-called Anglo-Saxons.

Source: A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy, p. 45 , Jan 8, 1963

Remove distinction between native-born & naturalized citizen

Senator John F. Kennedy today pledged that "high priority" would be given by a Democratic administration to the platform plank calling for amendments to the immigration and naturalization laws to ban discrimination based on national origin.

Source: Senate press release, "Naturalization Laws" (APP) , Aug 6, 1960

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Other past presidents on Immigration: John F. Kennedy on other issues:
Former Presidents:
Barack Obama(D,2009-2017)
George W. Bush(R,2001-2009)
Bill Clinton(D,1993-2001)
George Bush Sr.(R,1989-1993)
Ronald Reagan(R,1981-1989)
Jimmy Carter(D,1977-1981)
Gerald Ford(R,1974-1977)
Richard Nixon(R,1969-1974)
Lyndon Johnson(D,1963-1969)
John F. Kennedy(D,1961-1963)
Dwight Eisenhower(R,1953-1961)
Harry S Truman(D,1945-1953)

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V.P.Dick Cheney
V.P.Al Gore
V.P.Dan Quayle
Sen.Bob Dole

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Page last updated: Feb 22, 2022