On the 52nd anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, the country he presided over finds itself split over newcomers: how many immigrants it should accept, and from where, and generally, how wide its doors should be. But such questions are American perennials — and some terrific evidence for that proposition comes from Kennedy’s own posthumously published monograph, A Nation of Immigrants. More than a half-century old, the book is as relevant as ever, scholars and advocates say.
The slim book reads is easy to digest, a bit didactic and very civic-minded.
Kennedy drafted the first version when he was a junior senator from Massachusetts; it was an instrument to articulate the drastic changes in immigration law he recommended. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued it as a pamphlet in 1958; New York Times Magazine published excerpts of it in August 1963. It’s said that President Kennedy had set about a revision and expansion while in the Oval Office, but the book wasn’t published until the year after his assassination.
Little surprise that, in a nation still shocked and grieving, A Nation of Immigrants received rave reviews. And, like the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and other pieces of Great Society legislation, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 got a huge assist from the dead president’s imprimatur. (That law enacted the basic policy prescriptions in the book.
Fifty years later, the slim book reads like something your ninth-grade social studies teacher might have assigned: easy to digest, a bit didactic and very civic-minded. The main argument is its title — that the United States is a “nation of immigrants.” The idea sounds fresher when put like this: “Every American who ever lived, with the exception of one group, was either an immigrant himself or a descendant of immigrants.”
More on the “exception” in a moment, but first let’s pause on the forebears that sentence evokes. They were astonishing! Dare I say hardier, craftier and braver than we are? Before easy communication, which was not so long ago, “migration was a leap into the unknown.” At times, one in 10 people died on the passage over. Then these people set off on migrations west and south and made lives for themselves, families, communities and country. They were strong, persistent and audacious besides. Probably desperate, too, for migration generally remains the lot of the poor and persecuted, not the rich and powerful.
America was made of them, Kennedy wrote: the Chinese and Irish railroad builders in the late 19th century and the Scandinavian timber fellers in the 20th, the political activists from Germany and Hungary, and the Swedes who brought log cabins to Illinois. They combined for something greater than the sum of their tired huddled masses and gave the United States “the extraordinary mobility which is the essence of an open society.”
The book’s second argument is that xenophobia is nearly as old as Plymouth Colony.
Now, back to the exception: Kennedy sometimes wanted to loop Native Americans into the category of “immigrant” — they may well have come from another continent. And he seems to count the Africans brought as slaves as immigrants, too, though he admits their passage wasn’t voluntary. It feels like an omission, but perhaps it he did not dwell on it for fear it would complicate his narrative.
The book’s second argument is that xenophobia is nearly as old as Plymouth Colony. Almost every new wave of immigration, from the Chinese in the late 1800s to the Irish and Italians in the early 19th, provoked nativist worry among those who’d been in the States longer. Even telegraph inventor Samuel Morse had an anti-Romanist book in him (its title: A Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States). These older Americans worried about immigrants taking low-wage jobs, or failing to assimilate or coarsening American values with their own traditions.
“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,’” Kennedy wrote.
The book’s third, and perhaps subtlest, argument is that “nativism” or “parochialism” or “ethnic supremacy” would never succeed in the United States — “not because the seeds were not there to be cultivated,” he wrote, “but because American society is too complex for an agitation so narrowly and viciously conceived to be politically successful.” In other words: Xenophobia will remain, but it’ll never gain wide enough purchase to be a threat.
Kennedy marshaled all this for policy prescriptions. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 would not allow unlimited immigration. But criteria for entry changed. Instead of quotas based on race or nationality — kind to northern Europeans and cruel to everyone else – the new system prioritized immigrants with certain skills or family already in the United States. In effect, the act opened the United States’ doors to more Greeks, Italians, Mexicans and Chinese, and for almost the first time, to nationals from India, the African continent and other non-European places.
America’s demographics have changed significantly since. So have its menus, music and other cultural traditions. But the immigration debate has not, advocates say. “It’s helpful for people to understand that it’s not a new debate,” says Deborah Lauter, civil rights director of the ADL, the book’s original publisher. “And what the book does, in a very simple way, is to put immigration policy within the history of the United States, and remind people why immigrants make the country so great.”
Why you should care
A half century after its publication, John F. Kennedy’s monograph on immigration is as relevant as ever.