Kennedy's Vision of America as 'Nation of Immigrants' Still Resonates

  • by:
    • Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
  • October 17, 2018
    This article originally appeared in

Members of Congress and the Administration, faced with a wave of immigration and fears that the immigrants would endanger national security, passed a series of laws establishing entry quotas. Their goal was to severely restrict immigration to the U.S.

To stem the influx of immigrants from Mexico, the government also launched an operation to force their return, fanning agents across Texas and the Southwest to identify undocumented immigrants and send them back across the border.

Critics raised questions about racial profiling. There was a public outcry over the fact the laws primarily targeted Mexicans and other non-white migrants.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. But this is not a description of the immigration debate today. Rather, it recounts events in the mid-1950s, when rising xenophobia and anti-immigrant fervor in the U.S. prompted the Anti-Defamation League to prevail upon a then-junior Senator from Massachusetts to write a compelling argument for immigration policy reform. The senator was a future president, John F. Kennedy, and the inspiring essay he penned was A Nation of Immigrants.

The book is now a classic. It powerfully demonstrates why the United States is at its best when it remains a safe haven for refugees. Written in 1958, its inspirational observations about the diversity of America’s origins and the influence of immigrants and refugees on the American experience make a compelling case for a sensible and humane immigration policy today – one that provides opportunities and hope for “huddled masses” from around the world.

It’s been six decades since Kennedy wrote this book, yet it would be a mistake to pass his work off as the relic of some recently unearthed time capsule. So on the 60th anniversary of the first printing, we decided to re-issue the book and give a copy to key members of Congress.

Kennedy’s favorable view of immigration was hardly an argument for open borders. He was pragmatic on the subject and wanted a responsible policy that treated immigrants with dignity and humanity. Kennedy wrote that “there is, of course, a legitimate argument for some limitation upon immigration,” but he argued for a “generous” immigration policy. “It should be fair; it should be flexible,” he wrote. “With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.”

The essay also celebrated the fact that America – in 1958, a nation of just under 200 million people – had been populated almost entirely by persons who either themselves came from other countries or whose ancestors came from other countries. “Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life,” he said.

In recent times, we have seen an increase in rhetoric and policies across the country that undermine the ideals of our democracy. Today, at a time when the federal government has decided to cap refugees allowed into the U.S. to the lowest number ever, we face a global refugee crisis of epic proportions – the largest since World War II.

The Administration has proposed to close off America to the “tired” and “poor” yearning for freedom by making it more difficult for immigrants to come to this country or obtain citizenship if they have ever used public welfare programs. This “zero tolerance” policy has led to thousands of children being separated from their parents at the border. The Administration has sought to overhaul longstanding protections for children in immigrant detention and hold them indefinitely. Recent reports have revealed that the Administration is building a tent city in the desert to house these minors, a facility that easily could be compared to a military prison.

Images and stories of the worst kind of suffering and misery have evoked compassion in many quarters, but also have prompted some to allow fear and prejudice to be injected into policy making. That is a stark departure form JFK’s vision of a compassionate and more open society.

It is hardly the humane immigration policy that JFK and other fair-minded leaders of his era from both sides of the aisle had envisioned.

The promise of the Statue of Liberty is that, no matter one’s background, those “yearning to be free” can reach the highest levels of success in our country. Kennedy’s book reminds us of this ideal. We must pay heed to the words of our 35th president and to the vision of our Founding Fathers. They believed in an America that would open its doors to those deserving the freedom and chance to build better lives. Despite the political winds battering our values, now is the time to hold open those doors.

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