At a time when the issue of immigration and immigrants has taken center stage in this country, the message of President John F. Kennedy’s classic essay A Nation of Immigrants is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. That is why the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and publisher Harper Perennial have reissued this landmark essay on the contribution of immigrants to American society.
With a new introduction by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants (Harper Perennial) offers inspiring suggestions for immigration policy and presents a chronology of the main events in the history of immigration in America.
Written by Kennedy in 1958 after ADL reached out to the then-junior senator from Massachusetts asking him to highlight the contribution of immigrants at a time when the country was locked in a debate about the direction its policy should take, it is the last manuscript President Kennedy ever wrote, and the book was first published posthumously.
Throughout his presidency, John F. Kennedy was passionate about the issue of immigration reform. He believed that America is a nation of people who value both tradition and the exploration of new frontiers, people who deserve the freedom to build better lives for themselves in their adopted homeland. This modern edition of his posthumously published, timeless work — with a new introduction by Senator Edward M. Kennedy and a foreword by Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director — offers the late president’s inspiring suggestions for immigration policy and presents a chronology of the main events in the history of immigration in America.
As continued debates on immigration engulf the nation, this paean to the importance of immigrants to our nation’s prominence and success is as timely as ever. About the Author
John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) graduated from Harvard with honors in 1940 and served as a P. T. Boat Commander in the South Pacific during World War II. He was decorated twice by the Navy for the serious injuries he suffered when his boat was rammed in two while attacking a Japanese destroyer in the Solomons, and for “his courage, endurance and excellent leadership” in towing injured members of his crew to safety.
A writer and newspaperman, Kennedy in 1940 wrote Why England Slept, a best-selling analysis of England’s unpreparedness for war, termed by the New York Times “a notable textbook for our times.”
The son of Joseph P. Kennedy, former Ambassador to Great Britain, and the grandson of Boston’s one-time Mayor and Congressman John F. Fitzgerald, Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946 at the age of twenty-nine, and re-elected in 1948 and 1950. In 1952 he became the third Democrat ever elected to the Senate from Massachusetts, receiving the largest vote ever polled by a Senator in the history of the state. He was President of the United States from 1961 to 1963. He was the youngest man ever elected to the Oval Office and the first Roman Catholic President. Introduction by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy
My brother Jack wrote “A Nation of Immigrants” in 1958, and his words ring true as clearly today as they did half a century ago. No one spoke more eloquently about our history and heritage as a nation of immigrants or fought harder on behalf of fair and rational immigration laws than President Kennedy. One of his last acts as President was to propose a major series of immigration reforms to end the ugly race-based national origins quota system, which had defined our admissions policies in that era. As he told Congress in July 1963: “The enactment of this legislation will not resolve all of our important problems in the field of immigration law. It will, however, provide a sound basis upon which we can build in developing an immigration law that serves the national interest and reflects in every detail the principles of equality and human dignity to which our nation subscribes.”
A century and a half ago, all eight of our Irish great-grandparents successfully crossed the Atlantic in the famous vessels that were known as coffin ships because so many people failed to survive the arduous voyage. They arrived in Boston Harbor, came up the “Golden Stairs,” and passed through the city’s Immigration Hall on their way to a better life for themselves and their families. From my office in Boston, I can still see those “Golden Stairs,” and I’m constantly reminded of my immigrant heritage.
As President Kennedy put it, “This was the secret of America: a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers, people eager to build lives for themselves in a spacious society that did not restrict their freedom of choice and action.”
Immigration is in our blood. It’s part of our founding story. In the early 1600’s, courageous men and women sailed in search of freedom and a better life. Arriving in Jamestown and Plymouth, they founded a great nation. For centuries ever since, countless other brave men and women have made the difficult decision to leave their homes and seek better lives in this Promised Land.
In New York harbor, there stands a statue that represents the enduring ideal of what has made this nation great, a beacon on a hill. At her feet, on the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands, are inscribed the eloquent words of the poet Emma Lazarus:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Immigrants today come from all corners of the world, representing every race and creed. They work hard. They practice their faith. They love their families. And they love this country. We would not be a great nation today without them. But whether we remain true to that history and heritage is a major challenge.
There is no question that the immigration system needs to be reformed to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. The urgent issue before us is about the future of America. It is about our pride for our immigrant past and our pride for our immigrant future. We know the high price of continuing inaction. Raids and other enforcement actions will escalate, terrorizing our communities and businesses. The twelve million undocumented immigrants now in our country will become millions more. Sweatshops will grow, and undermine American workers and their wages. State and local governments will take matters into their own hands and pass a maze of conflicting laws that hurt our country. We will have the kind of open border that is unacceptable in our post 9-11 world.
Immigration reform is an opportunity to be true to our ideals as a nation. At the heart of the issue of immigration is hope. Hope for a better life for hard-working people and their families. Hope for their children. Martin Luther King had a dream that children would be judged solely by “the content of their character.” That dream will never die. I believe that we will soon succeed in enacting the kind of reform that our ideals and national security demand.
As we continue the battle, we will have ample inspiration in the lives of the immigrants all around us. From Jamestown to the Pilgrims to the Irish to today’s workers, people have come to this country in search of opportunity. They have sought nothing more than the chance to work hard and bring a better life to themselves and their families. They come to our country with their hearts and minds full of hope. I believe we can build the kind of tough, fair and practical reform that is worthy of our shared history as immigrants and as Americans.
With these challenges in mind, I commend this volume. Written five decades ago, its powerful vision still guides us. Foreword by Abraham H. Foxman
The reissuing of “A Nation of Immigrants” on its 50th anniversary is not only commemorative but has great relevance for us today. The history of this monograph is deeply intertwined with the story of America’s struggle for a fair and compassionate immigration policy. When the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reached out to the junior senator from Massachusetts in 1957 to highlight the contribution of immigrants, the country was locked in a debate about the direction its policy should take.
Then, as now, nativism, bigotry and fear of competition from foreign labor were dulling the collective American memory of its own immigrant history and its ideals.
Then, as now, hate groups were beating the drums of anti-foreigner slogans and tried to sway the public and elected officials toward a restrictive immigration policy.
The Jewish community had its own unique immigrant experience – too frequently caught between America’s welcoming tradition and home-grown nativist movements and anti-Semites.
Many Jews like myself, fortunate to arrive on these shores, were treated with suspicion. A 1939 Roper poll found that only 39% of respondents felt American Jews should be treated like all other people – 10% even believed Jews should be deported.
Groups like the Ku Klux Klan exploited anti-foreigner fears and bigotry. They attracted record membership in the 1920s and 1930s as fascism and anti-Semitism rose in Europe and Jews sought a haven from Nazi persecution. The door of immigration — open to Jews fleeing pogroms in the late 1800s — was largely closed by policies like the National Origins Act that set a cap on immigration and established a discriminatory national-racial quota. That disappointed thousands who sought refuge in America and cost the lives of many more who perished in the Holocaust.
Their sense of despair is etched in our memory in the chilling image of the 900 Jews aboard the SS St. Louis floating off the Florida coast in May 1939, the lights of Miami plainly visible on the horizon, who pleaded for refuge in the United States. It was a haunting moment in our history when America’s fear led policymakers to betray one of our country’s most cherished traditions – providing safe haven for the persecuted.
In 1963, when President Kennedy prepared his plea to Congress for an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy and the discriminatory national origin quota system, he decided to update and reissue this book to reemphasize the central ideal of welcoming immigrants to America. That new edition was in the works when he was assassinated. The monograph was then posthumously published in 1964, with an introduction by his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. Attorney General Kennedy called the book “a weapon of enlightenment” to be used “to eliminate the discrimination and cruelty of our immigration laws.”
The abandonment of the passengers of the SS St. Louis is not ancient history. Today, the same fear and canards that hardened the hearts of America’s people and leadership are being used to foment fear of an “invasion” of illegal immigrants.
President Kennedy’s vision and call to conscience in 1957 is even more stirring and relevant today. The debate over immigration reform dominating the headlines, editorials and conversations in the classroom, the board room and the dinner table across America is following an all too familiar pattern. Our nation finds itself at a crossroad which provides an important opportunity for national reflection and self examination – if we choose to seize that opportunity instead of giving in to those who go down the dangerous path of targeting immigrants and assailing the principle of diversity and pluralism on which the country is founded.
Many Americans are moved by the activism of immigrants marching proudly under the banner “we are America,” and welcome their desire to join our communities and to contribute to this country. They reflect the diversity that makes America unique. But others are swayed by fear and the hate-mongering that is becoming mainstreamed in the media and on the Internet and sometimes spawning violence in the street.
ADL has issued a series of reports exposing extremist forces in our society today using the immigration debate to advance their agenda of hate, bigotry, and white supremacy.
While racial superiority is no longer the parlance of our time, today hate groups rail against non-white immigration and urge Americans, to “fight back” against the perceived ”invasion” of the “white” United States by Hispanics from Mexico.
We know from our own experience that when a society begins to demonize a group as less deserving of rights, less worthy, less human, less equal, then discrimination, exploitation and worse, can follow.
The communities impacted by immigration policy change from generation to generation. The families seeking to be united come from different countries and continents, the believers seeking religious asylum practice different faiths, persecution victims are targeted by different regimes. But they all come here united by a desire to enjoy the liberties and opportunities our nation was founded upon.
Unlike in the past, immigration today is not a matter of Jewish self interest per se. But it is a matter of principle that cuts to the core of our values as Jews and as Americans dedicating to preserving America’s founding mission as a haven for the persecuted.
As a survivor of the Holocaust, I came to America with my parents from a displaced persons camp in Austria. I know what it means to be an immigrant, and as a Jew I know what it means to be the target of hatred. Our tradition compels us to “remember that we were once strangers in a strange land.” This has motivated Jews throughout the ages to be at the forefront of reaching out to other vulnerable communities and to advocate beyond the particular interests of our own community. That principle is what unifies good people in America, regardless of national origin.
Today we engage this debate, not just as a Jewish organization or a civil rights organization with a record of nearly a century of advocacy for fair and humane immigration policy. The Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish community are mindful of the threat posed by 21st century terrorism and the duty of government to enforce borders and protect its citizens. This has put in sharp focus the need to reform our immigration law with an appropriate balance of fairness, compassion, and security. That is why we have championed comprehensive immigration reform efforts that marry enhanced border security, and the humane treatment of immigrants and their families.
We are heartened that as the third edition of this book is issued, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and The President have called on America to embrace diversity are urging congress and the people to support needed reform our broken immigration system.
We are proud to join with another distinguished Senator Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, a stalwart in urging Congress not to abandon these principles. He has been a voice of reason and passion – a center of gravity in a tumultuous and polarizing debate that cuts to the core of the fundamental ideals and future of this nation.
On the 50th anniversary of a “Nation of Immigrants,” we rededicate ourselves to the principle that is as urgent and timely today as when written. The tenor and outcome of our national debate over immigration reform and the fate of undocumented persons in the U.S. will speak volumes about our national character and ideals. We hope good people will use this opportunity to move beyond merely the goal of “tolerance” and desire for an orderly immigration system. We hope Americans and their lawmakers will heed the call of President Bush who has spoken eloquently about the welcoming spirit that has defined America and urged Americans to embrace and not to fear diversity. Heeding the plea of the Kennedy brothers, Americans should come together to proudly embrace our immigrant past and our immigrant future: “our attitude toward immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as their talent and energy allow. Neither race nor creed nor place of birth should affect their chances.”
Abraham H. Foxman
Anti-Defamation League overview
After students read A Nation of Immigrants (Harper Perennial, 2008) by President John F. Kennedy, engage them in furthering their understanding of immigrant communities and immigration issues in the U.S. – historically and in contemporary times – by using some of the suggested topics and questions below.
“We Are America”
In the Foreword to the new edition, ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman describes recent immigrant rights marchers carrying banners that read “We are America” (page xiii). How does the makeup of today’s “we” in that slogan compare and/or contrast with the country’s demographics before the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965?
Kennedy opens the first chapter by describing the observations of a nineteenth century French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in his famous work Democracy in America (1835) that America was a place “that did not restrict (Americans’) freedom of choice and action” (page 2). How much freedom of choice and action did immigrants of that time actually experience in America? Did their country of origin or race play a role in the degree of freedom they had? Explain your response.
Americans are Immigrants
Kennedy argues that “every American who ever lived, with the exception of one group, was either an immigrant himself or a descendant of immigrants” (page 2) and that the exception – Native Americans – were considered by some to be immigrants themselves. Would you consider Native Americans immigrants? Do you think the label “immigrants” is an appropriate term for African Americans, who Kennedy acknowledges were “bought and sold and had no choice” in immigrating to this country (page 7)? How would you define an “immigrant”? How do we understand the term “immigrant” today, and does it match with who Kennedy considered immigrants?
Reasons for Immigrating
In Chapter 2, Kennedy outlines three main reasons why immigration to the U.S. took place: freedom from religious persecution, political oppression and economic hardship. To what extent do you think these still apply today?
Xenophobia and Nativism Today
Kennedy writes “But emotions of xenophobia – hatred of foreigners – and of nativism – the policy of keeping America ‘pure’ … continue to thrive” (page 38). How does he support this claim? Who does he identify as targets of such xenophobia and nativism? In what ways do these emotions still influence today’s public opinion about immigration and immigrant communities?
Coded Language of Xenophobia and Nativism
In the Foreword, Foxman reports that while the immigration debate has included valid and sincere arguments on both sides of the issue, it has also been framed at times by vitriolic anti-immigrant – and particularly anti-Latino – rhetoric and propaganda, not only from extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan but also anti-immigrant groups that have positioned themselves as legitimate, mainstream advocates against illegal immigration. While the former do not hide their hatred, the latter groups use coded language to provide the veneer of respectability yet aim to demonize immigrants: “However, under the guise of warning people about the impact of illegal immigration, these anti-immigrant groups often invoke the same dehumanizing racist stereotypes as hate groups” (page xiv).
Kennedy also notes the use of such coded words in the late 1800s to exclude and demean, such as the specific use of the word “American” to exclude Chinese immigrants, and “foreigners” and “savage hordes” to instill fear of immigrants “taking over” the country. Research what these coded words and phrases are, and how anti-immigrant advocacy groups, the media and politicians in the 19th, 20th and 21st century use them to exclude, demoralize and make immigrants (whether legal or illegal), and those who are perceived as immigrants, seem sub-human. To what extent, if any, has this language changed throughout the centuries?
Addendum to “Give me your tired…”
In contrast to the ideals set forth in Emma Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty, Kennedy paints a different picture of the U.S. by adding to her quote, “as long as they come from Northern Europe, are not too tired or too poor or slightly ill, never stole a loaf of bread, never joined any questionable organization, and can document their activities for the past two years” (page 45). Why do you think Kennedy felt it was important to add to Lazarus’ quote? What would your addendum be, given the present-day attitudes frequently expressed about the immigrant community?
Write a brief analysis of one of the photos in the section of immigration photographs, using some or all of the following questions: * What does the photo tell you about the immigrant(s)?
* What do you observe the immigrants carrying?
* What are some of the things you think they might have brought with them in their packs and baskets? * Why do you think these things might be important to them? * What can you surmise about the people in the photograph from their appearance? * What, if anything, can you tell about their economic situation based on the clothing they are wearing? Interpreting Video
Watch the video of Kennedy’s speech to the ADL in 1963 and answer the following questions: * President Kennedy mentions that “America was to be the great experiment.” What do you think he meant by this? * In your own opinion, do you think “the great experiment” was successful or not? Fallacy of Melting Pot
In Chapter 5, Kennedy uses the phrase “melting pot” to describe how immigrants from a variety of ethnic backgrounds can blend into a “single nationality” as Americans. However, he is quick to share the limiting nature of this phrase: “We have come to realize in modern times that the ‘melting pot’ need not mean the end of particular ethnic identities or traditions” (page 35). Discuss in your own words whether you agree with Kennedy’s argument of the limited use of “melting pot.” What other words or phrases may work better to describe this situation, e.g., tapestry?
Civil Rights Movement
In Chapter 5, Kennedy argues that the process of integrating Americans under one nationality failed in the case of African Americans. He shares, “Today, we are belatedly, but resolutely, engaged in ending this condition of national exclusion and shame and abolishing forever the concept of second-class citizenship in the United States” (page 35). What is he referring to? Do you think African Americans were (and continue to be) shortchanged in this effort? Who else is missing from efforts to be brought into the “full stream of American life”?
In Chapter 6, Kennedy discusses several laws and acts that have posed discriminatory limitations on immigration, namely and pointedly against Asian immigration. How does Kennedy explain the racist nature of these laws? Consider the following acts, court cases and programs, and explore how they have upheld racial discrimination, whether intentionally and/or as a result of historical racism. * 1790 and 1795 Naturalization Act
* 1857 Supreme Court Case: Dred Scott v. Sanford
* 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act
* 1923 Supreme Court Case: United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind
* 1924 Immigration Act
* 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarren Walter Act)
* 1954 Operation Wetback
Map of Immigrant Communities
Following Appendix A (pages 52 and 53), there is a pictorial representation of the ethnic majorities in each of the fifty states in the early 1960s, entitled “A Nation of Immigrants.” Update the representation to reflect current demographics, using Census data.
Behind the Scenes
In the Foreword, Foxman shares that Kennedy, who was a junior Senator of Massachusetts, accepted ADL’s request to write this essay, and A Nation of Immigrants was published in 1958. After being elected President in 1960, Kennedy used this essay as a blueprint to advocate for a fairer immigration law that was not based on race or ethnicity. How does he organize the essay? Why does he start with the contributions of immigrants? How does he end the essay? Do you think this essay successfully argues against racial quotas and the need to reform the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act?
Civil Rights Movement
During the time of this book, the Civil Rights Movement was challenging the racist laws and practices in this country. How did the Civil Rights Movement impact and influence the immigration debate?
Impact of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act
In tribute to the death of President Kennedy in 1963, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This act removed racial quotas inherent in previous immigration laws, thus leveling the immigration playing field. During his remarks at the signing of the immigration bill, Johnson echoed what several other proponents of the law argued that though reparative, “this bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions.” From your perspective, do you agree that it was not a revolutionary act? Why or why not?
Visual Representation of Today’s Immigrants
The section of photographs in A Nation of Immigrants highlights the experiences and identities of immigrants to the U.S. up until the mid-1960s. What photos would you add to bring the collection up to the current day? Using the Internet or other print resources, research and identify photos of recent immigrants that accurately reflect current patterns of immigration or responses of people in the U.S. to immigration policy. Write a brief paragraph to serve as a caption for your selection(s).
A Nation of Immigrants: A Guide for Today?
In the Introduction, Massachusetts Senator and brother of John F. Kennedy, Edward M. Kennedy espouses the relevance of this book, “Written five decades ago, its powerful vision still guides us” (xi). In what ways did this book increase your understanding of the immigrant community and immigration issues? If you were invited to contribute an Afterword in the book, what would you add to help other readers understand this topic?
Additional Resources for Students
Blohm, Judith M. and Terri Lapinsky. 2006. Kids Like Me: Voices of Immigrant Experiences. Intercultural Press: Boston. In addition to over two dozen stories from teens, this book includes engaging and age-appropriate activities and resources. A bibliography of books and Web sites are also included.
Documenting Stories of Immigration in Your Community: A Manual for Teachers and Students (2008) Inspired by a student project which resulted in the book Forty-Cent Tip: Stories of New York City Immigrant Workers (published by Next Generation Press), this how-to manual provides teachers and students with directions on how to implement this classroom project of documenting stories of immigration in their own community. It includes instructions on how to get permission from your interview subject, interview questions, essay writing and photography tips. Download the manual.
Gita Saedi, Gordon Quinn and Steve James. 2003. The New Americans. Kartemquin Educational Films, Inc. This seven-hour three-part series follows these newcomers from each of their homelands through their first tumultuous years in America to pursue the “American Dream.” The series includes stories of immigrant children. For ordering information and additional resources and support materials, go to PBS’s Independent Lens. For excerpts of this series and a companion guide, go to Active Voice’s Web site.
NPR. The Immigration Debate.
This site provides a variety of news reports about the immigrant community and the U.S. immigration debate. It includes a story about the impact of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act signed by President Johnson