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Analysis: JFK's immigration legacy

By PATRICK REDDY

SACRAMENTO, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- In 1969, former JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson penned The Kennedy Legacy, a tribute to John and Robert Kennedy. Sorenson was undoubtedly correct that the Kennedy brothers inspired a generation of young idealists. But forget Camelot, the Bay of Pigs, the Peace Corps or the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Now, 38 years after of John F. Kennedy's assassination, it is apparent the Kennedys have a substantive legacy that is much more important: The 1965 Immigration Reform Act promoted by President Kennedy, drafted by Attorney General Robert Kennedy and pushed through the Senate by Ted Kennedy has resulted in a wave of immigration from the Third World that should shift the nation in a more liberal direction within a generation.

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It will go down as the Kennedy's family greatest gift to the Democratic Party.

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From 1880 through 1924, America had admitted a total of 25 million immigrants, mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe. This huge influx of mostly Catholics and Jews touched off a nativist backlash from the nation's Protestant majority in the Midwest and South.

In response came the 1924 law, which reduced immigration by more than 80 percent annually. The 1924 act also contained a notorious quota system that was designed to maintain the nation's then-ethnic balance. For example, because 3 percent of the population was of Italian descent, no more than 3 percent of the new immigrants could be from Italy.

For many years, reversing the quota system was high on the agenda of the liberal Northern wing of the Democratic Party (Italian-Americans in Massachusetts helped elect John F. Kennedy as senator in 1952, despite the Eisenhower landslide that year. He was an outspoken advocate of immigration reform in the Senate during the 1950s, and Ted Kennedy later took up his cause).

But the twin crises of the Depression and Second World War diverted attention from immigration and conservatives always blocked any changes.

However, by the 1960s, the children of the pre-1924 immigrants had come to power as symbolized by JFK's election as the nation's first Catholic president (he was also the grandson of Irish immigrants). With the economy booming, a consensus had grown that America could afford to be more generous in its admissions policy.

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The civil rights movement also helped: if the nation was tearing down racial barriers at home, why should it continue to discriminate against potential newcomers? And the Democrats owed these minorities: Italian-American voters tilted New York State to Kennedy, guaranteeing his victory in the Electoral College; Asians tipped Hawaii narrowly to JFK while the Hispanic vote provided him with his margin of victory in Texas, Illinois, New Jersey and New Mexico.

By the time of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, an immigration reform act was moving through Congress. The new law that abolished the quota system and increased levels of legal immigration was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

For all its current importance, immigration had almost no impact on the politics of the late 1960s, as the Vietnam War and race riots were the leading issues. All this social turmoil led to the independent presidential candidacy of George Wallace, who ran on a platform of "law and order" and anti-welfare rhetoric.

Wallace helped peel away two previously Democratic-leaning groups: white Southerners and working-class whites in the North and West. The party split caused by the war and the loss of the blue-collar vote (in places like South Philadelphia and Southwest Chicago) proved fatal to Hubert Humphrey in 1968. The realignment caused by Wallace resulted in a net loss of nearly 10 million votes for the Democrats from 1960 to 1968. The strength of this new conservative alignment was demonstrated when Nixon, Reagan and Bush combined most of the Wallace vote with traditional Republican business/middle class support to win five out of six national elections from 1968 through 1988. It seemed Democrats faced a chronic deficit of white votes.

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So what is a Democrat to do when social issues have driven a wedge into their coalition? One approach would be to court conservatives, but that would be suicidal because it would probably turn off the party's normal liberal base.

Another would be to try to find new issues. Bill Clinton succeeded here somewhat in the 1990s with welfare and budget reforms, but his support was mostly personal as the Republicans retained control of Congress since 1994. The Democrats could wait for another national catastrophe like the Depression in 1932, but that is hardly an attractive posture.

The final approach would be to develop new constituencies. Jesse Jackson made progress on this goal when he registered two million more black Democrats in the 1980s. And the peak immigration levels of the past generation have opened up another opportunity. Since the 1970s, total legal and illegal immigration has averaged more than 1 million per year (nearly twice the peak levels of the past century). More than 60 percent have come from Latin America and another 20 percent from Asia.

All of this means the high immigration levels of the past generation represent an immense opportunity for Democrats.

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Just as European immigrants populated the cities of the Frost Belt, Hispanics and Asians are now doing the same for the new cities of the Sun Belt. San Antonio and El Paso now have Hispanic majorities; Los Angeles soon will. San Francisco, Houston, Dallas and San Jose had non-white majorities in 1990, while San Diego did so in 2000. Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, Las Vegas and Albuquerque soon will also join the ranks of "majority-minority" cities. So the potential Democratic base in the Sun Belt is now there.

Democrats have already solidified their grip on California due to a massive, permanent mobilization of Hispanics. They are now starting a big voter registration drive in the Hispanic community that could swing Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico into the Democratic column and even perhaps threaten the Republican hold on Texas, Florida and Arizona. Taken together, these states have more than half the electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

For many years after renewed mass immigration began in the mid-1960s, this ethnic shift had almost no impact on national politics. Hispanics and Asians were slow to register, together casting less than 5 percent of the nation's vote. And in the 1980s, many immigrants supported Ronald Reagan, thus neutralizing any potential Democratic bloc vote among Hispanics and Asians.

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This began to change in 1992 as the recession helped elect Bill Clinton and the immigrants swung to him along with millions of other Americans.

After the 1992 election, Republicans led by California Gov. Pete Wilson and Pat Buchanan panicked and used immigration as a scapegoat for various problems, promoting Proposition 187 (which cut off all public services to illegal immigrants) and helped enshrine this doctrine in the GOP national platform.

The strategy worked in the short run, as Wilson was re-elected with a bloc white vote. But it quickly backfired on Republicans as Hispanics and Asians turned to the Democrats in droves in 1996 and 1998. Wilson received over a third of the Hispanic vote in his 1990 gubernatorial bid, and just about 20 percent in 1994 after campaigning hard for 187.

And 1994 was just the beginning: both the Asian and Hispanic communities set records for turnout in 1996 (while going strongly for President Clinton). Furthermore, their portion of the national electorate can only grow due to the fact that these two groups have historically had the lowest turnout rates. From 1988 to 2000, the Hispanic and Asian share of the electorate doubled from 5 percent to 10 percent.

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A process of an increasing minority share of the vote has begun that will see blacks, Hispanics and Asians eventually casting about 30 percent of the national vote within a generation. (The high minority turnout allowed Al Gore to win the national popular vote by more than 500,000 in 2000, despite losing more states in the Electoral College.)

Figures like these have gotten the attention of both parties. Stu Spencer, who was Ronald Reagan's manager, wrote in an open letter to California Republicans that unless they quickly changed their course, the new immigrant vote would consign them to "permanent minority status." George W. Bush and his chief political guru Karl Rove were among the first Republicans to recognize the tremendous potential of the immigrant vote -- and the tremendous risk for Republicans if they continued to alienate the fastest growing groups in the electorate.

During his successful 1994 campaign against Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Mr. Bush opposed Proposition 187, one of the few Republicans in the nation to do so. As Texas Governor, Bush assiduously courted minorities with appointments and school reforms. After winning the Republican nomination in 2000, he had the Republican National Convention remove immigrant-bashing language from the party platform. Bush then was rewarded when he nearly doubled the 1996 Republican level among Hispanics in the Southwest. Indeed, one Hispanic sub-group -- Cuban-Americans -- voted heavily Republican in Florida, thus tipping the election to Bush.

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National opinion polls show that Hispanics and Asians are now currently joining in giving President Bush's an 80 percent-plus job approval rating. While the president has done an excellent job reaching out to immigrants, the guess here is that President Bush's popularity among immigrants is personal and won't extend to the rest of his party. Right now, Bush himself would be re-elected in a landslide, but I still expect the Democrats will take control of Congress next year with the help of Hispanic voters.

An anti-immigration group ran ads in the conservative magazine National Review a few years back with a picture of Ted Kennedy in an attempt to use conservative hatred of him in the immigration debate. The ad quoted Teddy from the debate on the 1965 immigration bill, predicting (wrongly, as it turned out) that this bill would neither greatly increase total immigration nor change the ethnic mix of America. But while these ads may convert some conservatives to the anti-immigrant cause, it will also remind the children of immigrants that the Democrats are on their side.

When Ted Kennedy ran for President in 1980 and was defeated, the only group that stayed loyal to him was the Hispanic community -- presumably in gratitude for the Kennedy family's stance on immigration. And who knows, perhaps the children of today's immigrants will someday help put another member of the Kennedy clan in high office?

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But even if no other Kennedy wins, the Kennedy legacy of immigration reform will last. The Asian-American valedictorians, affluent professionals and successful businesspeople on both coasts, plus the Hispanic neighborhoods of the Southwest with their vibrant culture and beautiful families, are living proof of the Kennedy influence on 21st-century America. These groups have already changed American society; they will soon change our politics.

A book in the late 1970s named JFK as one of the "100 most important persons in world history" for his sponsorship of the space program. That legacy may indeed, prove vital for the entire planet some day. For American history, Kennedy's most significant contribution is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial new nation, created largely by immigration. And for Democrats, the Kennedy-driven immigration reform of the 1960s produced a whole new generation of Democrats. What more could a party ask for?


(Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California's Assembly Democrats.)

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