Q&A: Sen. Kennedy on Immigration, Then & Now

Sen. Edward Kennedy

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) helped steer the 1965 immigration law through the Senate. He has played a key role in crafting legislation on the issue since then. U.S. Senate hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Senate
Irish forebears:

Irish forebears: Sen. Kennedy's maternal grandfather, John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald (left), was mayor of Boston and a U.S. congressman. His paternal grandfather, Patrick Joseph Kennedy (right), served in the Massachusetts legislature. JFK Presidential Library hide caption

itoggle caption JFK Presidential Library

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) has probably been more deeply involved in immigration issues than any other member of Congress. The 1965 overhaul was first proposed by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and it was the first piece of legislation that Kennedy managed on the floor of the Senate.

He has helped shape several substantial immigration overhauls since then, and is a co-sponsor, along with John McCain (R-AZ), of the bill now being debated in the Senate. That proposal would toughen border security, mandate that employers check the legal status of new hires, legalize millions of undocumented workers already here, and create a guest-worker program.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden recently spoke with Kennedy about his own family's immigrant history and the legacy of the 1965 legislation.

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Q: Take us back to 1965. What were the social and political forces then that really drove this 1965 overhaul of immigration law?

KENNEDY: For all intents and purposes, it was wide open when my great-great-grandparents came here in 1848. I can look out of my office in Boston in the JFK building and still see the docks where eight of my great-great grandparents came in 1848. I can see what they call the Golden Stairs, which are the stairs that come off the piers into East Boston. They were named that by immigrants that came from all different parts of the world.

There was an enormous rivalry with the various groups. There was rivalry between the Irish and Italian and the Polish groups. Massachusetts has a number of families, for example, from the French tradition. It was probably the first nationality for Massachusetts and recognized as so. They had French newspapers in Massachusetts. They were printed weekly up until a few years ago. You had Father Morrisette from Lowell, who spoke French to his parishioners.

You could look into these communities, even today, and almost see why some were the Democrats and some were Republicans. If they came on in and were the first groups that worked in manufacturing, and they were the ones who got the jobs, or went places where others were established, like the Irish, they remained Democrats.

If a new group came in and they were excluded from the jobs, they would turn and become Republicans. You can almost see this in different communities, where Polish-Americans in Chicopee will be Democrats because they got there very early. And yet in another community, they are Republicans because they got there later. There was an enormous sense of discrimination against the immigrants that grew, and discrimination against the Irish — which I remember hearing about in great detail from my grandfather.

Q: What did your grandfather say about those times?

KENNEDY: That no Irish need apply for jobs. They were constantly ostracized and discriminated against, primarily against employment and every other aspect of social-political and economic life. And then they gradually asserted themselves. My grandfather Fitzgerald was the first son of immigrants that was elected to the Congress of the United States, and also a mayor of a major city, which was a major breakthrough. But the sting of discrimination they felt was very powerful and stayed with them. And that became a very important element in the whole restructuring of our immigrant bill in 1965.

Q: What's striking about the debate in 1965 is how so many people did not expect a huge increase in immigration, or a change in the demographics of the nation. You told Congress that immigration levels would remain "substantially the same," and that "the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset." Why weren't these changes foreseen?

KENNEDY: There were enormous changes as a result of illegal immigration. A lot of the antagonism, frustration and anger is better focused at the illegality and the illegals that came here in very significant numbers. [People] are certainly frustrated by the illegality and the explosion of illegals who come here that have impact in terms of the economy, depressing wages, and taking jobs.

But on the other hand, they have this incredible admiration and respect for their neighbor, the person at the corner store who is working 18 to 20 hours a day, trying to provide for their family, and whose child is serving in the armed forces of the country. They admire those [immigrants] they see in church, churchgoers who are trying to bring their kids up. So there's a very significant ambivalence in people's minds.

Q: But the level of even legal immigration has increased dramatically since 1965, even though many supporters of the legislation then said it would not.

KENNEDY: Everybody obviously wants to come, because this is the land of opportunity, but we've seen a rather dramatic shift as well in terms of the birthrate here. That was not really foreseen.

You're having now the leveling off of the birthrate here among a number of families. You certainly saw that in terms of Europe and Western Europe, where there is an actual decline. I don't think we foresaw that so much at the time, 40 years ago. But that is a fact, and that sends all kinds of messages.

To be energized we need new workers, younger workers, who are going to be a part of the whole economy. We don't have them here in the United States. There are greater outreach efforts being made in terms of trying to keep people in the labor market longer.

We need to have the skills of all of these people. The fact is, this country, with each new wave of immigrants, has been energized and advanced, quite frankly, in terms of its economic, social, cultural and political life. And I think that's something that will continue into the future. I don't think we ought to fear it, we ought to welcome it.

Q: Some have suggested it was a mistake to make family reunification the main purpose of our immigration law. They say perhaps we should have a system more like Canada's, which lets people in based largely on their skills. How do you respond to these criticisms?

KENNEDY: I think our tradition of the Statue of Liberty is to be willing to accept the unwashed as well as the highly skilled. There are a lot of people who haven't had opportunities in other places as a result of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes and discrimination. Are we going to say we refuse to let any of those individuals come in because we've got someone who has happened to have a more advantaged situation? I'm not sure that's what this country is all about.

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