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Of the many accomplishments of Ted Kennedy, few have had a more profound effect on America—America as a state, as an economy, a society, and as a nation—as the first act he ever managed to passage, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

The Kennedy family made tremendous sacrifices for our country. Joe Kennedy died in a secret mission during World War II. John and Robert, of course, were both assassinated. And just about every other member of the family had a long history of public service, either in the political sphere or with causes like Eunice's devotion to the Special Olympics. The Kennedy "clan" was also famously loving and close. Thus, it was appropriate that a cause championed by John Kennedy and eventually brought to passage by Teddy put in to immigration policy a preference for family ties over marketable skills:

The current system of legal immigration dates to 1965. It marked a radical break with previous policy and has led to profound demographic changes in America. But that's not how the law was seen when it was passed -- at the height of the civil rights movement, at a time when ideals of freedom, democracy and equality had seized the nation. Against this backdrop, the manner in which the United States decided which foreigners could and could not enter the country had become an increasing embarrassment.

An Argument Based on Egalitarianism

"The law was just unbelievable in its clarity of racism," says Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University. "It declared that Northern Europeans are a superior subspecies of the white race. The Nordics were superior to the Alpines, who in turn were superior to the Mediterraneans, and all of them were superior to the Jews and the Asians."

By the 1960s, Greeks, Poles, Portuguese and Italians were complaining that immigration quotas discriminated against them in favor of Western Europeans. The Democratic Party took up their cause, led by President John F. Kennedy. In a June 1963 speech to the American Committee on Italian Migration, Kennedy called the system of quotas in place back then " nearly intolerable."

It may have started out as a political sop to "ethnic" voters in 1960, but it's likely that no political act of the last century has so changed America and put us on the path to eventually becoming a multi-racial nation as that law from 1965. In 1960, the quota for immigrants (pdf) in to the US from Asia was 21,604. From the entire continent of Africa, only 1,925 immigrants were allowed in to the US. In 1960 only 5.4% of Americans were foreign-born; most were from Europe. But by 2000, 35 years of the new immigration policy, 11.1% of the population was foreign-born; of the foreign-born, only 16% were from Europe, with about half from Latin America and a quarter from Asia.

My home—the Detroit area—has been transformed in recent decades by massive immigration from Lebanon and Iraq, Yemen and Albania. I moved a few years ago to DC, which has become a major destination for immigrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea and West Africa. I'm now working in the quintessential Scandinavian state, but whose largest cities now have thriving communities of Vietnamese and Cambodians and Hmong and Somalis. In major cities like New York or Los Angeles, or in small towns that become destinations for immigrants from halfway around the world, the people we live next to, buy things from, worship with, befriend, marry and with whom we create our own families, are people who were let in to America because of Senator Ted Kennedy's first major legislation.

That the bill prioritized family ties, and was passed by an Irish Catholic, is apt. Catholics were the most despised religious group in early America. After the enslaved Africans and the persecuted native Americans, no other major group was so marginalized as the Irish. But today, Irish Catholics are no longer discriminated against, are no longer outside the mainstream of American society. The discrimination was fading, but still existed in 1960, when John Kennedy became our first (and still only) Catholic president. But thanks in part to the accomplishments and sacrifices of the Kennedy family, by the time I was growing up in the 1970's, being discriminated against because you were Irish Catholic—a real experience for my grandparents—was for me something that existed only in history and family lore.

Some people and groups, when they "make it" and are prosperous and accepted, don't want to extend opportunities to others, lest, they fear, they lose their own (newly) privileged status. In the terminology of immigration policy, they want to "pull up the ladders" and keep everyone else out. But the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was an act of lowering the ladders and welcoming immigrants from across the globe. When he was arguing for the act, Kennedy tried to assure critics that it wouldn't significantly change the ethnic makeup of the country. Obviously he was wrong, and it's open to interpretation whether he misjudged the effects or concealed his intents. But in an interview a few years ago, he espoused the best American principles in supporting the act:

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.

Most of us Americans descend from people who arrived as among the "great unwashed masses." As with my family—most of whom originally came from Canada in the 1920's—many of us have unwashed ancestors who had the luck to arrive here before the ladders were pulled up just before the Great Depression. But after 1965, the ladders were lowered, and the "unwashed" were again welcomed to America.

Much will be made over the next few days about Ted Kennedy's lifelong effort to extend health care to all Americans. It will be depicted as a great tragedy that Kennedy didn't live to see his dream enacted. But we should also celebrate Ted Kennedy's greatest achievement. Ted Kennedy, indeed the entire Kennedy family, gave a lot to America, but nothing greater than the 1965 immigration bill, because it gave people around the globe—even the unwashed—the opportunity to become Americans. Ted Kennedy gave us Americans.  

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Wed Aug 26, 2009 at 09:16 AM PDT.

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