Tuesday, November 26, 2013

JFK and Immigration Reform

During this past week there has been a lot of discussion about President John F. Kennedy on account of the 50th anniversary of his death.  A recent CNN poll found that JFK ranks as the most popular U.S. president of the last half century.  According to the poll, his approval rating currently stands at an impressive 90%.  Perhaps one of the reasons for the high level of favorability is the general optimism held by people of what Kennedy could have accomplished in a second term had he lived.  When he was assassinated that fateful day in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was only two years, ten months, and two days into his presidency.  Hence, when he is compared to other presidents who served longer, a significant weight is put on his proposals for the future.  For example, a trip to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston would reveal that the exhibits there put a greater emphasis on his presidential election and speeches and less on his accomplishments than the other presidential libraries and museum do regarding the other presidents. 

One of Kennedy's documents that signals the direction that he would have gone as president had he lived is the proposal that he sent to Congress on July 23, 1963, a mere four months before his untimely death, to reform the U.S. immigration law as it existed at the time.   In 1963, immigration law was controlled largely by annual quotas based on national origin that had been in place since 1924.  President Kennedy believed that the quotas were unfair and should be eliminated.  The national origin quota system was created based on the composition of the nation's population as expressed in the 1920 census.  Kennedy argued that because of this, "the system is heavily weighted in favor of immigration from northern Europe and severely limits immigration from southern and eastern Europe and from other parts of the world."  However, immigration patterns had drastically changed since the early 1920s.  The immigration law with the national origin quotas was not equipped to handle the immigration reality of the 1960s. 

Therefore, Kennedy proposed that the system be substituted by one that allowed "those with the greatest ability to add to the national welfare, no matter where they were born, [to be granted] the highest priority" in being admitted into the country."  After this group of people, Kennedy stated the next priority should be "those who seek to be reunited with their relatives."

Yet, Kennedy did not believe that the national origin quota system should be eliminated overnight.  He believed "a reasonable time to adjust to any system must be provided if individual hardships upon persons who were relying on the present system are to be avoided."

Kennedy also made other suggestions in reforming the immigration laws.  He recommended that parents of American citizens, who at the time had preferred quota status, should not be subjected to the quota, and  a preference category should be created for parents of U.S. alien residents.  The first recommendation was later adopted into the law under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  However, there is still no preference category for parents of legal permanent residents.

Furthermore, Kennedy believed that immigration law should be structured to promote the admission of talented people into the country.  He felt that the stringent immigration process robbed the country of individuals who "would be helpful to our economy and culture."  He advocated for a smooth and simple procedure that would allow "highly trained and skilled persons [to apply for residency] without requiring that they secure employment here before emigrating."   This is an idea that has remained alive in the subsequent decades.  Its proponents have shared Kennedy's view that the U.S. should do a better job of attracting the world's talent to come to live and work in the U.S.  The EB-1 program for "aliens of extraordinary abilities" has partly remedied this problem by allowing persons who have exhibited extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics to immigrate into the U.S. without having to first secure employment.

Finally, there were two other Kennedy proposals that are worth mentioning.  At the time in 1963, there were no numerical limitations imposed on the number of immigrants coming from independent countries in the Western Hemisphere.  Immigrants from these countries were not hindered by the immense backlogs that exist at present time.  An individual from such a country could apply to immigrate to the United States almost immediately.  However, such a benefit only applied to nationals born in countries in the Western Hemisphere, which had gained their independence prior to 1952.  Kennedy wanted to extend this benefit to those born in countries that gained independence after that date. Also, Kennedy found that one of things that slowed the immigrant process was that many of the quota numbers were filled up by individuals who had since died, refused to accept an immigrant visa, or had immigrated to other countries.   Kennedy suggested that the Secretary of State should have the authority to terminate the priority of such applicants, thereby increasing the number of immigrant visas available.  Both of Kennedy's aforementioned suggestions were incorporated into the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  Yet, prospective immigrants from Western Hemisphere countries are now subjected to the same preference categories as the rest of the world. 

The influence of John F. Kennedy's abbreviated presidency can still be felt fifty years later in different areas.  One such arena is that of U.S. immigration law.

The above information is provided for information purposes.  It should not be construed as legal advice or the formation of an attorney/client relationship.