Ted Kennedy was not responsible for the Immigration Act of 1965

In his talk on Jewish power, Joe Biden included immigration and refugee policy  as  illustrations of how Jews have changed America. In an otherwise great column on the decline of the West, Pat Buchanan begs to differ:

It was in 1965, halcyon hour of the Great Society, that Ted Kennedy led Congress into abolishing a policy that had restricted immigration for 40 years, while we absorbed and Americanized the millions who had come over between 1890 and 1920.  (“Will the West Wake Up?“)

Sorry, but I have to go with Joe on this one—probably the only area I would prefer Biden’s views to Buchanan’s. Kennedy was a freshman senator with little clout. His role in leading the bill came about because it was a slam dunk following the liberal landslide in the 1964 election (the one where the US avoided having Barry Goldwater blow up the world). The Senate hearings on the bill were so perfunctory that the statements of opponents were given in Kennedy’s office; these were mainly old line patriotic organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution which by that time got absolutely no respect from elites. The bill was written by Norbert Schlei who was Jewish, and its official name is the Hart-Celler bill; Emmanuel Celler spent his entire career in Congress as a leader in opposition to immigration restriction, beginning with his hostility to the 1924 law which enshrined quotas favoring Northwestern Europeans. One should also mention the role of Jacob Javits in the Senate. As soon as the bill was passed, Jewish organizations focused their efforts on increasing the numbers of immigrants. Ted Kennedy may not have lied when said the bill would not change America. But in conjunction with the later efforts of Jewish activists, demographic change was inevitable.

But that’s the least of it. The 1965 law was the culmination of a 40-year effort by the Jewish community to overturn the 1924 law. My version of the story, with numerous references to the roles of Jewish organizations, Jewish-organized and Jewish-funded committees, and Jewish legislative leaders like Javits and Celler, is here. This is how Hugh Davis Graham summarized it in his 2002 book Collision Course (pp. 56-57):

Most important for the content of immigration reform, the driving force at the core of the movement, reaching back to the 1920s, were Jewish organizations long active in opposing racial and ethnic quotas. These included the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and the American Federation of Jews from Eastern Europe. Jewish members of the Congress, particularly representatives from New York and Chicago, had maintained steady but largely ineffective pressure against the national origins quotas since the 1920s…. Following the shock of the Holocaust, Jewish leaders had been especially active in Washington in furthering immigration reform. To the public, the most visible evidence of the immigration reform drive was played by Jewish legislative leaders, such as Representative Celler and Senator Jacob Javits of New York. Less visible, but equally important, were the efforts of key advisers on presidential and agency staffs. These included senior policy advisers such as Julius Edelson and Harry Rosenfield in the Truman administration, Maxwell Rabb in the Eisenhower White House, and presidential aide Myer Feldman, assistant secretary of state Abba Schwartz, and deputy attorney general Norbert Schlei in the Kennedy-Johnson administration.

Although I don’t really think that Buchanan believes that Kennedy should get so much credit, gullible readers may not understand what was really going on. I can’t tell you how many times people posting comments on this site made this claim, so it’s quite common even among people with views generally similar to those on this site (unless they were trolls).

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