A Nation of Immigrants

A vigorous debate over U. S. immigration policy has been raging for the last decade during the Obama and Trump Administrations. During that period, Congress has considered but not passed any changes to our immigration laws. President Trump made immigration a major issue during his 2016 run for the White House and has kept the issue in the limelight with his repeated calls for the construction of a wall on our Southern border.

This protracted discussion of immigration issues made me want to learn more about the history of immigration in this country. That’s why I was delighted to discover A Nation of Immigrants, one of several books written by John F. Kennedy before he was elected president in 1960.

Kennedy’s best known book is Profiles in Courage,1 for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in Biography in 1957. His first book — Why England Slept2 — was written in 1940 during his senior year at Harvard.

His third book — A Nation of Immigrants — was originally published by Harper & Row Publishers in 1964, the year after President Kennedy’s assassination, but it has been republished with additional material in 2008 and again in 2018 by HarperCollins Publishers.

You may ask, why did John Kennedy write this book? The answer is fascinating. He was asked to write it in 1958 by a man named Ben Epstein, who was the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.3

At that time, Kennedy was the junior senator from Massachusetts, but he had already staked out immigration as an issue of special concern. He had recently been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage and was being discussed as a likely contender for president in 1960. Even more importantly, he was the great-grandson of immigrants4 and had an enormous respect for the accomplishments of immigrants.

His book recounts the history of immigration to this country, as well as the evolution of the nation’s policy toward immigration. Kennedy discusses the three main reasons that people have come to America over the years: (1) search for religious freedom; (2) relief from political oppression; and (3) desire for economic opportunity. He traces the waves of immigration from before the American Revolution through the post-World War II period.

The book is filled with interesting facts and figures about the countries from which immigrants have come in the last three centuries. The book has separate sections on immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia and southern European countries. It also contains 32 pages of photographs of immigrants and newspaper cartoons about immigration issues.

Recent media accounts have focused on the hardships faced by Mexicans and Central Americans during their trek to the United States and the horrible conditions they have faced during the detention, which follows their arrival in the United States. The conditions faced by these recent immigrants pale in comparison to the terrible conditions that European immigrants faced on the ships that brought them across the Atlantic Ocean to America as recently as a century ago, not to mention the squalid conditions on the lower east side of New York and the other slums in which they lived after reaching our shores, all of which are graphically described in Kennedy’s book.

Antipathy toward immigrants is not new. In the 1850s a political party (the American Party, sometimes referred to as the Know-Nothing Party) was formed to fight for immigration laws that would make it more difficult to enter this country. In 1882 Congress enacted the Oriental Exclusion Act, aimed at preventing Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States. After the First World War there was a movement to limit immigration in the name of “true Americanism” and “Nordic superiority.”

Beginning in 1882 with the Oriental Exclusion Act, Congress has enacted statutes addressing specific immigration issues, such as the exclusion of certain classes of “undesirables” (lunatics, convicts, idiots and polygamists) and the setting of health and literacy standards. The first codification of our immigration laws occurred in 1924, when Congress established ceilings on the number of immigrants that could be admitted each year from each country. These ceilings were based on the percentage of persons living in this country in the year 1920 who had come (or whose ancestors had come) from each country. This system was thus heavily weighted in favor of allowing more immigrants from northern European countries. The next major change in immigration law took place in 1952, when the quota system was essentially maintained.

In July 1963 President Kennedy proposed major revisions to the immigration laws. The text of his proposal to Congress is contained in Appendix D to his book. Sadly, he did not live to see his proposal enacted. However, his successor Lyndon Johnson was successful in pushing through the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which phased out the nation-of-origin quota system and instituted the family unification policy now under fire from President Trump and others. The 1965 law, which was based on Kennedy’s proposals, is the foundation of our current immigration policy.

Kennedy wrote the text of A Nation of Immigrants in 1958 and was revising it at the time of his assassination in November 1963. The editors at HarperCollins and the staff of the Anti-Defamation League recently joined forces to update the book by adding several Appendices at the end. For example, Appendices B and B-1 contain a comprehensive 25-page chronology of immigration events and laws from 1607 to 2018.

If you decide to read this informative book, you should order the 2018 edition from HarperCollins, because it contains much material not found in the original edition published in 1964. The 2018 edition also contains very eloquent introductions by Sen. Ted Kennedy (written in 2008) and by Rep. Joe Kennedy III, grandson of Robert Kennedy (written in 2018).5 

JOHN P. WILLIAMS is a member of the Nashville law firm Tune, Entrekin & White. He received the Justice Joseph W. Henry award for outstanding legal writing for articles published in the Tennessee Bar Journal in 2003 and 2014.

1. Profiles in Courage tells the stories of eight U. S. Senators who took courageous stands on controversial issues, contrary to the views of their constituents and despite obvious danger to their political careers.
2. Why England Slept was written by Kennedy as a research paper during his senior year at Harvard, while he was visiting his father, who was at the time Ambassador to England. The book analyzes the reasons why England did not make more adequate preparations for the looming war in Europe during the 1930ss.
3. The copyright in the book was and still is owned by the Anti-Defamation League.
4. When President Kennedy made a sentimental visit to Ireland in June 1963, he stood on the spot from which his great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy had embarked on his journey to America and said: “When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in east Boston, he carried nothing with him except a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. If he hadn’t left, I would be working at the Albatross Company across the road.”
5. The 1964 edition of the book is the edition found at most public libraries. It has an introduction by Robert Kennedy, which contains the above quotation from his brother’s remarks in Ireland in 1963.

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