Commentary Magazine

The Immigration Fight Has Only Begun:
Lessons of the McCarran-Walter Setback

Despite the President’s veto, the McCarran-Walter immigration bill is a defeat for those who hoped for revision of the racist immigration laws which for some three decades have nakedly contradicted our democratic principles. But the debate over this bill has at least brought into the light of public discussion a problem that too many of our citizens have regarded as settled and forgotten. If the various “minority groups” that together make up the American “majority” can now be awakened to a sense of their legitimate interest in the immigration problem, OSCAR HANDLIN believes, we may yet achieve a policy more in keeping with our national character and aspirations. 



The passage of the McCarran-Walter Bill has frustrated five years of effort to reform our immigration laws. At this writing, the news comes that President Truman has vetoed the bill, and it is difficult to predict whether or not it will be passed over his veto. But whether the measure ever becomes law or not, it represents a resounding defeat for all those who have toiled to bring into conformity with present needs and ideals the complex code by which we regulate the admission of immigrants.

That this code demands revision is almost beyond argument. The considerations in favor of a total overhauling of these regulations have been frequently and forcefully stated (e.g., see COMMENTARY, January 1947). The laws under which we now operate were enacted thirty years ago and are unrealistic in terms of the needs of 1952. Their intention was, presumably, to give the United States a stable flow of newcomers, fixed at a little over 150,000 a year. These laws have never done so. Assigning the largest number of places to applicants from countries like Great Britain which no longer produce substantial numbers of emigrants, and limiting the available places for countries like Italy which do, they have reduced the stream to a negligible trickle. In recent years the laws have prevented us from making useful additions to our manpower; the shortages of the early postwar years might certainly have been alleviated under a more flexible policy. In a future in which every competent demographer predicts for us a declining birth rate, such additions may become more and more desirable, if not actually essential to our national survival.

Most important, the present system clashes with the democratic ideals of most Americans today. The product of an earlier troubled postwar period, it reflects the spirit of isolationism and a racist xenophobia that in those same years was also expressed through the Ku Klux Klan and in the rejection of the League of Nations, and it is clearly anachronistic at a time when the United States strives to speak for the free peoples of the world against totalitarianism. A quota system setting up a hierarchy of desirable and undesirable peoples is offensive to our allies and potential allies throughout the world, and is a slur upon millions of our own citizens.



The need for some fundamental change became apparent shortly after the end of the war in 1945. As immigration resumed, even at the low levels of 1946 and 1947, it revealed scores of inconsistencies and manifest injustices, altogether apart from the major defect in policy represented by the system of national-origins quotas itself. A long series of hearings before the immigration subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee evoked reams of evidence, and this spring the Congress was offered two sets of bills dealing with the immigration problem.

In accepting the proposals of Senator McCarran and Representative Walter, and rejecting an alternative set of proposals offered by Senators Lehman and Humphrey and Congressman Roosevelt, the Congress has indicated that it does not wish to make any departure from the principles of the legislation of 1924. For the McCarran-Walter Bill is one of the worst statutes to which an American Congress ever gave its approval. Far from correcting the inadequacies of our immigration code, it multiplies them. Not since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 has an act of Congress come so close to subverting the underlying assumption upon which the conception of citizenship in the United States rests: the assumption that there are no degrees of citizenship, that all Americans are completely equal in rights whatever their place of birth.

The bill perpetuates all but one of the regrettable features of the old system and, in addition, introduces a variety of new ones. It does fortunately make available quotas—albeit small ones—to the countries of Asia, and thus ends one of the worst of the old invidious discriminations. But the regressions in the new measure more than cancel this slight gain. Retaining the rigid national quotas, it actually raises and fortifies the racist barriers. It thus deprives the Negroes of the British West Indies of the right to take advantage of the unused quotas of Great Britain. It defines as Oriental persons with even one Asiatic parent, no matter what their place of birth; the son of a Chinese mother and an English father, born a British citizen in Britain, would not be free to enter our country under the British quota. Professors, ministers, and refugees from religious persecution would lose the few advantages they now enjoy in seeking admission to the United States. In addition, the bill curtails severely the civil liberties of immigrants and resident aliens. The latter would be compelled to register annually, and two failures to do so would be cause for summary deportation. Convictions for crime, anywhere, at any time, would bar an applicant for admission to this country; there would no longer be, as there is now, some consideration of the surrounding circumstances of the crime—when it occurred, whether it involved moral turpitude, the nature of the convicting tribunal, or whether it would be considered a crime in the United States. Resistance to Mussolini in 1924 or the Czech government in 1948 might conceivably be grounds for exclusion. The power of immigration and consular officials, already arbitrary, would be increased. Most disturbing, the McCarran-Walter Bill sets up a class of conditional, or second-class, citizens: under its provisions, our naturalized citizens would not immediately receive rights equal to those of the native-born, as they have in the past, but for five years their citizenship would remain probationary, subject to revocation for Communist affiliation.

That such bitter fruit should have come forth from all the effort expended toward securing the revision of our immigration laws is undoubtedly discouraging. Yet it is important to understand the true nature of this setback; hysterical reactions to it can only frustrate the ultimate purpose of achieving an effective democratic policy in this field. The McCarran-Walter Bill is not the product of any devious reactionary conspiracy. Nor does it indicate any widespread adherence to racist doctrines among the American people. Its motives and causes lie rather in the peculiarities of an immediate political situation, in the persistence of certain anachronistic habits of thought, and in a widespread apathy in sectors of the population that ought to be most actively concerned with these matters. An understanding of these elements will point the way toward the strategy that might bring about at last the needed long-term reform of our basic immigration legislation.



Pat McCarran, Senator from Nevada, illustrates in his own person the vestigial fears that animated many who voted for his proposals, and his position in the Senate reveals the peculiar political configuration within which the measure was considered.

McCarran is not just a bitter old man resentful of the changing America within which he lives. He is the symbol of a fossilized radicalism inadequate in its own day and mischievously incongruous in ours. A desperate quarrel with FDR drove him in 1938 into the camp of those who resist all changes and his Catholic sympathies early made him an admirer of Franco. But the roots of his feelings toward immigrants reach back to the unrecognized fears of his early manhood in the first decade of the century.

As a young man in Nevada, McCarran was moved by the quasi-populist ideas that swept through the Mountain States in the years before the First World War. Like many others swayed by the free-silver argument, McCarran absorbed a profound distrust of all that was international and a hatred of foreigners that was one of the by-products of the silver crusade. Often in the sentiments McCarran expresses in 1952 we hear the overtones of the shrill arguments of Tom Watson forty years ago.

McCarran is, furthermore, the son of immigrants, and a Catholic who grew to maturity in an era in which all immigrants—and particularly Catholics—lived under an incessant pressure to prove their loyalty. The charge of “un-Americanism” McCarran first heard directed against his church and against his parents’ people. The first conception of Americanism he learned was from the lips of men who resented the right of immigrants to maintain their own ways of life and demanded total assimilation as the price of toleration. The venom McCarran now directs against the aliens was generated by the hatred of foreigners that was all about him in his youth and by the dim, recalled fear that he himself might be counted among them. That fear, joined to the atavistic fear of some international conspiracy, accounts for the iron determination which raised this old man from a sickbed and brought him to Washington to fight for his measure.

McCarran, however, is one man, and has one vote. The power he wields comes from his position in the Senate. The system of seniority has brought to the aging Senator from Nevada the chairmanship of the critical Judiciary Committee, a position that gives him a determining voice in the decisions that bring bills to the floor of the Senate. To the power derived from this official situation, McCarran has been able to join the weight of influence derived from his strategic political role. Responsible only to his safe little constituency in Nevada, he has long acted the free-wheeling independent, disregarding party discipline and presidential leadership alike. The emerging alliance of Dixiecrats and stalwart Republicans has enormously magnified the importance of that role; McCarran may well be capable of drawing from those groups almost enough votes to assure passage of any measure in which he is concerned. And in the case of the immigration bill he was able to count also upon support from the racist anxieties of the Southerners and the isolationist concerns of the Midwesterners.

Whatever other powers he has needed, Senator McCarran has been able to draw from his other role as chairman of the Internal Security Committee. That committee has thus far been largely preoccupied with Far Eastern policy, although its mandate was by no means limited to that area. Operating in the excited atmosphere generated by reckless charges of Communism, the committee has aroused more fears than it has stilled. Its inclination to call almost every kind of dissident a Communist, coupled with its opponents’ insistence that there were no Communist conspirators at all, has stirred up a vast sense of uneasiness, and few public officials would lightly incur the enmity of the chairman of this committee. Out of his own fears and the fears of others, capitalizing on his key part in a touchy political situation, McCarran assembled the forces that brought him easy victory in the struggle to determine the future immigration policy of the United States.

It would be deceptive to allow the analysis to rest there, however. The supporters of McCarran’s immigration policy have had their way through effective exploitation of the Senator’s own position and of the new party alignments. But those who seek a reversal of his policy would be sadly mistaken to put their own faith in demagogy and political maneuvering. Even were such means available—and they are not—it would be unfortunate to permit the case for reform of the immigration laws to rest on the grounds of political expediency and partisan deals. It will be the part of principle as well as of tactics to abjure such methods altogether and to look elsewhere for reform in our immigration legislation.



If We cannot beat McCarran and his cohorts with their own weapons, we can do much to destroy the efficacy of those weapons. These maneuverings have succeeded because they have taken place in the half-light of public inattention. To understand how this could happen, we must move outside the realm of day-to-day politics and examine the more basic reasons why millions of Americans with a direct personal stake in the issue paid it no attention whatsoever.

The shadows of the bitter debate that accompanied the enactment of the immigration laws of 1919-1924 still hang over us. For thirty-five years, the long argument had proceeded acrimoniously and intemperately. Then it was over, and with the depression, the New Deal, and the new interests of social scientists, there was an inclination to let it die altogether. For the past twenty years only a handful of scholars have touched the question at all.

The result is that the scientific literature on this subject is still dominated by conceptions set forth in books written fifty years ago; and most of those books came from sociologists who assumed as a matter of course that it was possible and necessary to distinguish among the “races” of immigrants that clamored for admission to the United States, and who argued that immigrants brought wages down and forced native labor into unemployment, and that they increased crime and created slums. Such are the writings that still occupy the shelves of our libraries, such are the sources to which reference is still commonly made—for want of any better.

It was significant from this point of view to observe the reviews by sociologists of W. S. Bernard’s judicious presentation of the problem in 1950, American Immigration Policy—A Reappraisal. Roy L. Garis of the University of Southern California, for instance, was content to repeat the conclusions of his own study, Immigration Restriction, of a quarter-century earlier; and E. P. Hutchinson of the University of Pennsylvania shrugged the whole question off as one that was safely closed.

Unfortunately, few among us are able to recognize the nature of the commitments we have allowed to be made for us. The liberalism of the 1930’s, which regarded all men of apparent good will as members of the same camp, encouraged in this matter as in others a tendency to disregard meaningful distinctions. A particularly ironic example can be found in the case of Henry Pratt Fairchild, whose widely read book Immigration, which was published in 1913, did more than any other single volume to poison the minds of a generation of Americans on the subject of immigration. As late as 1947 Professor Fairchild explicitly stated his belief in the ineradicable biological differences among races in a blindly prejudiced volume filled with attacks upon the “minorities” (Race and Nationality as Factors in American Life) . Yet Professor Fairchild has acted as judge of the Saturday Review’s Anisfield-Wolf Award, given annually to the best book in the field of group relations. Such a choice simply points to the general ignorance of the nature of the issues involved and the casualness with which these matters are now treated.

More general evidence of disregard for the importance of this question may be found in the failure of liberals, even at the height of the New Deal when humanitarian sentiments in Congress were in the ascendant, to secure any relaxation of the laws of the 1920’s. Our shocking failure to assist the refugees of the 1930’s revealed the prevailing point of view with particular clarity.

A variety of elements probably joined to crowd this problem out of the thoughts of men of good will in the 1930’s. The fact that such liberals as E. A. Ross and John R. Commons had once served in the forefront of the campaign to end immigration must have contributed to the indifference of their followers to the question. Again, though the liberals of the New Deal era did not of course accept the racist premises of their predecessors, it was possible in the 1930’s to defend the quota policy on another ground: the necessity of barring culturally backward peoples who might more profitably remain in their own countries to prepare for the “inevitable” social revolutions. For all those who had lost faith in the expansive capacities of America, who talked of narrowing opportunities and closing frontiers, immigration may have seemed outdated, a “meaningless” meliorism.

More generally, it seemed futile to attempt to restore what had inevitably passed. The easier course was to treat the matter as closed and to refrain from raising issues of no immediate practical consequences. A liberal was above all, in those days, “realistic.” It was not likely, after all, that a flow of peoples on the 19th-century scale would ever again become a significant part of American life. Why waste energy and thought on our cumbersome structure of immigration laws?



There is the crux of the matter. McCarran will not long occupy his present place; the political crisis which gives him so much of his power will be resolved after a longer or shorter interval; survivals of racist attitudes will gradually wither in the light of exposure. A public that understood its own interests could sweep away the obstacles to revision of these laws and bring them into accord with our national interests and ideals. Our central problem is to arouse the understanding of the mass of Americans to the significance of the problem.

Why are these laws important? As I have said, it is never again likely that the United States will welcome to its shores a million immigrants in one year as it did six times between 1905 and 1914. Even were there no restrictive statutes at all, our world would not be one of free movement; the high cost of transportation alone would surely hold down migration. If we wish to alter the code we have, it is not to restore a state of affairs now past, but because the laws themselves are bad and fail to express either the attitudes of Americans toward the world, or their conception of their own national identity.

The laws are bad because they rest on the racist assumption that mankind is divided into fixed breeds, biologically and culturally separated from each other, and because, within that framework, they assume that Americans are Anglo-Saxons by origin and ought to remain so. To all other peoples, the laws say that the United States ranks them in terms of their racial proximity to our own “superior” stock; and upon the many, many millions of Americans not descended from the Anglo-Saxons, the laws cast a distinct imputation of inferiority.

More recent defenders of the quota system, unwilling to endorse the open racism that gave it birth, have urged that the differentiations it establishes be regarded as cultural rather than racial. The South Italian or the Syrian, it is argued, is culturally less capable of adjusting to American life than the Englishman or the German. Alas for uneasy consciences!—there is no evidence to support that contention. We have had some sixty years of experience with the immigrants and the children of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and from Asia, and the results are clear for anyone who wishes to read them: allowed to settle in peace, every variety of man has been able to make a place for himself in American life, to his own profit and to the enrichment of the society that has accepted him. The dreaded “riff-raff” of 1910—Greeks, Armenians, Magyars, Slovaks, Polish Jews—are the respected parents of respected citizens today. All theory aside, these human beings are the decisive proof that our present immigration policy must be changed.



Thus far, we have been excessively cautious. Even the rejected Lehman-Humphrey-Roosevelt bill, though far superior to the McCarran-Walter Bill, compromised with the quota system, seeking merely to correct its more obvious abuses. What is needed, if we are to dramatize the issue properly and awaken Americans to its importance, is a direct frontal attack on the whole conception of the national origins quota.

The direction the attack ought to take is clear: immigration should be restricted in terms of the economic and social needs of the nation. We can set what limits we like on total numbers and express our preferences in terms that do no violence to American ideals. Although no adequate examination has ever been made of the possible means of selecting potential immigrants, it is enough to point to the fact that there are alternatives to the national origins quota. Preference might thus be given to certain professions or occupations to remedy deficiencies, as they occur, in the domestic labor supply. There might be tests, as there were even before 1924, of literacy, or of intelligence, or of liability to become a public charge. Priority could be given to applicants sponsored by friends or relatives in the United States. Or there might simply be waiting lists, as there are now for individual countries, with admission, in a sense, rewarding patience and determination.

Any one of these alternatives would be superior to the present basis of selection. Certainly, there ought to be no place in our laws for the racist ranking of nationalities. The Americans of the 19th century had confidence enough in their own society and in their own institutions to believe any man could become an American. More than ever do we now need to reaffirm that faith.

A frontal attack upon the quota system would attract the active, not merely formal support of substantial groups which have not yet seen the sharp relevance to their own position of this legislation. Upon whom do the quotas cast the slur of inferiority? Upon all those whose grandfathers would not have been reckoned fit, under these laws, for admission to the United States. Whose grandfathers? Along with Pat McCarran’s grandfather, the grandfathers of millions of Poles and Italians and Jews, and of hundreds of thousands of others who, by their contributions to American life, have earned the right to be counted the equals of the descendants of the Pilgrims. If the issue were presented in these terms, many more would come to see a meaning in it that is now lacking for them.

We have been so often threatened with the epithet “hyphenated American” that we tend to forget that the descendants of immigrants have a right to be heard for what they are. Largely through administrative and judicial rulings in the past forty years, there has been created a presumption that Americans have no direct interest in immigration: the citizen who wishes to bring over a relative has none of the rights of the citizen who wishes to bring over a bale of wool, and it has come to be reckoned indecent, if not disloyal, for an Italian American to express concern over the quota of immigrants from Italy. Only those may speak who do so as “100per-cent Americans.”

Yet any sober consideration of the nature of our past and of the structure of our society exposes the falsity of this view. The Italian American has the right to be heard on these matters precisely as an Italian American. The quotas implicitly pass a judgment upon his own place in the United States. Furthermore, his concern as a person with the fate of his relatives in Italy is legitimate and deserves respect. Most important of all, he stands on the same footing as every other individual who voices an opinion on the subject. There are no 100-per-cent Americans, totally divorced from the ties and the biases of their antecedents, above and part from the groups which together make up this nation. In a society which has always taken pride in the diversity of its population, all men have the privilege of influencing the determination of government policy, the offspring of the most recent newcomers no less than the descendants of the settlers of Jamestown.



In Retrospect, it now appears that the campaign for revision of our immigration legislation has been overly solicitous of the prejudices of those who wish to maintain the status quo. Not a few Congressmen would have weighed their votes more carefully had their constituents been awakened to their own personal stake in the outcome. As it was, many groups failed to see the relevance of the McCarran-Walter Bill to their own position; while the responsible leadership was generally alive to its significance, their following was not. Some American Jews, for instance, reckoned that there was no longer any large body of their European coreligionists seeking emigration, and that those who were, would most likely move in the direction of Israel; American policy seemed therefore not to affect them. Although the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People objected to the McCarran Bill, the mass of Negroes had no interest in the matter, some under the delusive belief that more liberal immigration would over’ stock the market with cheap unskilled labor.

With the issue of principle not clearly drawn, still other groups were misled by the appearance of partial gains or by concern with other measures. M. Masaoka thus spoke for some Japanese Americans, so impressed by elimination of the barred Asiatic zone as to overlook all the unacceptable features of the McCarran Bill. The sponsors of the Celler Bill, among them several Catholic organizations, fell into a similar error; in the hope of securing the admission of 300,000 European refugees in the next three years, they were inclined to minimize their opposition to the McCarran Bill, thinking thus to smooth the way for enactment of their own proposal. What was lacking was the clear assertion of the overriding principle around which all these groups could unite. The principle involved their equal dignity, their equal share in the heritage of America. It is the principle that all men, being brothers, are equally capable of being Americans.

The recent passage of the McCarranWalter Bill need be no more than a temporary setback. Indeed, by uncovering dramatically the shortcomings of our present laws, it may actually open the way to a significant reformation. This chapter has at least served to demonstrate that the forces struggling to preserve these antiquated laws are so thoroughly out of step with life in the United States today that there can be no compromise with them. Day by day, and throughout the world, events expose the hollowness of the pretensions of 1924. We need only keep clearly before us the historic meaning of America and Americanism, the richness and the strength that spring from our diversities. Then, before too long, a clear appeal on the basis of those very diversities can evoke the protest that will strike from our statute books the laws that are out of keeping with our place in the free world and, above all, with our own character and aspirations.


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