“In the Name of America’s Future”: The Fraught Passage of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act

Senator Patrick McCarran, 1947 (Harris & Ewing photograph collection, Library of Congress)Senator Patrick McCarran (D−NV) was seething after Congress renewed the 1948 Displaced Persons Act in 1950. Incensed, McCarran wrote to his daughter: “I met the enemy and he took me on the DP bill. It’s tough to beat a million or more dollars and it’s something worthwhile to give the rotten gang a good fight anyway, and they know they have been to a fight for its not over yet.”[1] Guided by a mix of anti-Communism, nativism, and antisemitism, McCarran believed that any changes to the country’s immigration system placed the United States at risk “from a flood of undesirables” and blamed passage of the Displaced Persons Acts on Jewish legislators and allied organizations.[2] He wanted the immigration system created in the 1920s—which severely restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe, banned most immigrants from Asia, and broadened categories of exclusion—to remain intact.

As the United States emerged as a global leader during World War II, immigration advocacy groups had steadily eroded the existing immigration system. Arguing that the blatantly racist immigration policy created in the 1920s undermined US foreign policy, they had successfully mobilized for the repeal of the exclusion laws against Chinese, Indians, and Filipinos as well as for the passage of the War Brides Act of 1945, the Fiancés and Fiancées Act of 1946, and the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 and 1950.

Their hopes for further reform to remove discrimination from immigration policy faded when McCarran, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and of the Senate Immigration Committee, proposed an omnibus immigration bill. With its mix of restrictive, anti-Communist, and civil rights measures, McCarran’s bill perfectly incarnated the political atmosphere of the early 1950s. To assuage Cold War anxieties, the bill introduced more screening measures; tightened exclusion, deportation, and naturalization; and retained the national origins quota system that limited immigration from eastern and southern Europe—but continued to exempt the Western Hemisphere to allow the importation of expendable Mexican workers. At the same time, addressing emerging civil rights concerns, the bill included a small quota for refugees; ended Asian exclusion altogether; and removed all remaining racial, gender, and nationality barriers to citizenship. Despite its nod to civil rights, the bill revealed a continued preoccupation with maintaining the existing racial makeup of the United States. Although it abolished Asian exclusion, it granted a quota of only one hundred to Asian countries allocated on the basis of ancestral origin rather than place of birth. It also introduced the first yearly quota on Caribbean islands under British rule to restrict the growing flow of Jamaicans. Lastly, the bill proposed a preference system that favored immigrants with education, family ties, and economic potential in hopes of preserving the nation’s predominant racial identity.

Emanuel Celler, photograph by William C. Greene, 1951 (Library of Congress)When Representative Francis Walter (D−PA) introduced a similar bill in the House, liberal immigration reform supporters quickly mobilized against it. In February 1951, Representative Emanuel Celler (D−NY), a vocal critic of immigration restriction since his election to Congress in the 1920s, countered with an omnibus bill that would allow the reallocation of unused national quotas to ease the burden of oversubscribed quotas among key Cold War allies in Europe. He also enlisted Senator Herbert H. Lehman (D–NY), a longtime champion of liberal immigration and refugee policy, to sponsor a bill in the Senate. Lehman’s chief of staff set to work to draft a bill that could corral a broad coalition. Hoping to thwart this nascent opposition, McCarran and Walter made the unorthodox move of calling joint hearings on their bills from March 6 to April 9, 1951, timing that allowed them to exclude Celler’s bill from consideration.

Undeterred, Lehman’s office drafted a bill in consultation with ethnic, labor, and religious groups interested in immigration legislation. Framed in the context of civil rights at home and democratic leadership abroad, the resulting bill challenged McCarran’s narrative of immigrants as a menace and focused on eliminating discrimination and protecting immigrant rights. Lehman intentionally did not propose the elimination of the national origins quota system because he believed that the quota system remained “so ingrained in our laws that it is, perhaps, unrealistic to try to root it out completely. What we can and should do is to modify it to take the racist taint away.”[3] While many members of the budding interethnic and interreligious coalition expressed support for his proposal, a few expressed concerns. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) worried that the bill, however moderate, might alienate McCarran and jeopardize their influence over deliberations. After a new round of consultations, Senator Lehman introduced his bill in October 1951, and the coalition working with him launched a national campaign to rally support for it at the local level.

Although Lehman’s bill was hardly radical, it unleashed McCarran’s wrath. Using his outsized influence in the Senate, McCarran refused to hold any more public hearings on immigration and thwarted Lehman’s attempt to postpone Senate debate on immigration until after the elections. McCarran’s offensive threw an already fragile coalition into disarray. Although the majority of the European American organizations rejected the bill, other organizations preferred “to strive for amendments in the McCarran-Walter bills rather than go ‘all out’ for the Lehman bill.”[4] As the bickering continued, the coalition lost a critical ally when Representative Celler, as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, unexpectedly scheduled two executive sessions in January 1952 on the revised Walter bill. Celler had decided to speed along the Walter bill hoping that his support would give him a chance to amend it and extract more legislation for displaced persons in exchange. A month later, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted McCarran’s bill out of committee, killing further consideration of Lehman’s bill.

Mike Masaoka, first on left, with the Salt Lake City chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, 1939 (Courtesy of Ted Nagata, Denshō Digital Repository)Following Celler’s decision, the coalition divided along ethnic and ideological lines.[5] Mike Masaoka of JACL critiqued European Americans’ self-serving activism and interethnic coalition politics. Arguing “anything is better than nothing,” Masaoka noted that the bill allowed for more immigrants to enter the United States through its priority for family reunion, protected the United States from external threats, and lessened discrimination against Asian immigrants.[6] Shortly after his rebuke, the NCWC decided to endorse the McCarran-Walter bill as well because “bad as the McCarran-Walter bill is, the ‘status quo’ is worse.”[7] Other organizations soon followed, but it was the public endorsement of Secretary of State Dean Acheson that dealt a fatal blow to the liberal coalition. Some speculated that Acheson feared McCarran’s power over the State Department budget, as chair of the Appropriations Committee. More importantly, Acheson believed the repeal of Asian exclusion would advance US Cold War interests in Asia.[8]

Representative Adolph J. Sabath, ca. 1939 (Harris & Ewing photograph collection, Library of Congress)Despite a passionate speech by Representative Adolph Sabath (D–IL), born in Slovakia to Jewish parents, charging that if the bill became law, “the United States will itself become an iron-curtain country,”[9] the House passed the Walter bill by 206 to 68 on April 25, 1952.[10] In the Senate, most senators showed limited interest in immigration reform and bowed to McCarran. Even when Lehman offered to work with McCarran on his bill, the senator from Nevada rejected all of his more liberalizing proposals such as the creation of a Board of Immigration Appeals, the allocation of Asian quotas by country of birth, and the admission of displaced persons outside the sending countries’ quotas.[11] On May 22, the Senate passed the McCarran bill by a voice vote. On June 10 and 11, respectively, the House and the Senate adopted the compromise bill that the House and Senate immigration subcommittees had negotiated.[12]

Ultimately, President Harry S. Truman vetoed the bill. The president believed it perpetuated long-standing injustices and stifled US Cold War policy. While it was clear that the House would easily overturn the president’s veto, the Senate was less predictable, so McCarran unleashed all his influence to persuade his colleagues to support his bill “in God’s name, in the name of the American people, in the name of America’s future.”[13] After the House overrode the president’s veto 278 to 113, the Senate followed, 57 to 26, including 25 Democrats, mostly southerners. A shift of just two votes in the Senate would have prevented the bill from becoming law.[14]

McCarran’s victory was short-lived, however. Despite congressional restrictionists’ tight grip on immigration legislation, Cold War priorities forced Congress to pass a series of measures during the rest of the decade that eroded the spirit of the act almost immediately. Under the new law, just over 2 million immigrants should have arrived from 1952 to 1965. In reality, 3.5 million came, only about a third of whom (35.5%) were quota immigrants.[15] Many of the liberal organizations that had endorsed the McCarran-Walter bill later worked to undermine it. Their push for special legislation for refugees, orphans, and escapees, along with the act’s emphasis on education, family reunification, and economic potential, led to an increase in immigration and to a gradual shift to immigrants from non-European countries, paving the way for the demographic changes usually associated with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

[1] As cited in Leonard Dinnerstein, America and the Survivors of the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 248.

[2] On McCarran’s antisemitism, see Jerome E. Edwards, Pat McCarran: Political Boss of Nevada (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1982), 195, and Aristide Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006), 311.

[3] Hebert Lehman to William Benton, July 12, 1951, Box 115, File 1, Julius Edelstein Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

[4] John Slawson to Herbert Lehman, January 17, 1952, box 115, file 2, Edelstein Papers.

[5] For more on the unraveling of the coalition opposing the McCarran-Walter Act, see Maddalena Marinari, “Divided and Conquered: Immigration Reform Advocates and the Passage of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act,” Journal of American Ethnic History 35, no. 3 (Spring 2016): 9–40.

[6] Memorandum about Meeting of the Civil Liberties Clearing House, March 5, 1952, box 40, file 12, Records of the Office of the General Secretary, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University of America.

[7] Paul Tanner to Joseph Ritter, June 23, 1952, box 32, file 2, Bruce Monroe Mohler Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University of America.

[8] The New Leader, June 9, 1952, box 116, file 6; William Benton to Ben H. Brown, July 15, 1952, box 115, file 1; and Herman Edelsberg, Confidentially Yours, June 1952, box 116, file 3, Edelstein Papers.

[9] “Proposed Revision of Our Immigration Laws,” April 25, 1952, box 5, file 6: 1952, Adolph J. Sabath Papers, American Jewish Historical Society Archives.

[10] Jethro K. Lieberman, Are Americans Extinct? (New York: Walker and Company, 1968), 109.

[11] Friends Committee on National Legislation, Washington Newsletter, May 27, 1952, box 116, file 4, Edelstein Papers.

[12] American Jewish Committee, Comments on the Debate in the Senate, no date, box 117, file 2, Edelstein Papers.

[13] Herman Edelsberg, Confidentially Yours, June 1952, box 116, file 3, Edelstein Papers.

[14] Zolberg, 315–316.

[15] Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 (New York: Hill & Wang, 2004), 123.

Maddalena Marinari is assistant professor of history at Gustavus Adolphus College. She is the co-editor, with Maria Cristina Garcia and Madeline Hsu, of A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered: The US in an Age of Restriction, 1924–1965 (University of Illinois Press, 2018). Her new book, From Unwanted to Restricted: Italian and Jewish Mobilization against Restrictive Immigration Laws, 1882–1965, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press in 2019.