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America’s Newcomers Lose a Champion

August 27, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Senator Kennedy

In 1965, Congress had a lot on its plate.  A hotly-debated major overhaul of our health care system resulted in the Social Security Act of 1965, creating two government-run health insurance programs for the elderly and the poor (Medicare and Medicaid).  The Voting Rights Act was passed to keep jurisdictions (mainly in the South) from preventing their citizens from voting. 


Our immigration system was broken, and fixing it was a priority for the Johnson Administration.  Democrats were in the majority, but the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, James Eastland, was opposed to the immigration reforms being proposed.  He turned over the task of championing this Administration priority to the junior Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy.


The Immigration Act of 1965 re-configured the immigration system to place greater emphasis on family unity, getting rid of national origins quotas that were based on the composition of the U.S. population recorded in 1920.  Instead of preferences for certain nationalities, hemispheric ceilings were established (later set globally), and per-country ceilings were meant to keep any one nationality from monopolizing available visas.  It is the basis of our immigration system today, and it was the beginning of Senator Kennedy’s long association with U.S. immigration policy.


The Senator’s name was on the first effort to regularize our refugee admissions in the Refugee Act of 1980.  In 1990, he again was behind the last overhaul of our immigration system, the 1990 Immigration Act that, among other things, raised the overall level of family- and employment-based immigration, increased temporary business-related immigration levels, and created Temporary Protected Status.


In between and since, the Senator has been in the middle of countless battles over immigration policy—making smaller positive changes when it was possible to do so, and defending immigrants against the attacks of those who are always trying to close the door on America’s newcomers, or scapegoat and exclude them on any number of issues.


The Senator got things done—on immigration and many other issues—by reaching across party lines to build coalitions.  While he is vilified by the right as the symbol of liberalism, the reality is that he was a master of the art of political pragmatism.


That pragmatism was put to the test most recently in his drive to shepherd comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate.  It was Senator Kennedy, and his extraordinarily dedicated staff, who navigated the political landmines and pieced together legislation that did not give him everything he would have liked, but had at its core the legalization of 12 million people who now live in our country fearing that, after years of making a better life for themselves and their families, it all could end early some morning with a knock on the door. 


The Senator kept at it, and urged us all to keep at it, because he could not predict—none of us could—how many more months—or years—the undocumented would be condemned to the shadows.


They are still in the shadows, and our immigration system is still broken.  Congress must get back to work.  Senator Kennedy’s colleagues would do well to honor him by passing legislation to fix our broken immigration system. 


Photo by Maurice Belanger

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