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Presidential Papers Historical Series: Letter On Revision Of The Immigration Laws

by John F. Kennedy: 1961-1963

Dear Mr.___________:

            I am transmitting herewith, for the consideration of the Congress, legislation revising and modernizing our immigration laws. More than a decade has elapsed since the last substantial amendment to these laws. I believe there exists a compelling need for the Congress to re-examine and make certain changes in these laws.

The most urgent and fundamental reform I am recommending relates to the national origins system of selecting immigrants. Since 1924 it has been used to determine the number of quota immigrants permitted to enter the United States each year. Accordingly, although the legislation I am transmitting deals with many problems which require remedial action, it concentrates attention primarily upon revision of our quota immigration system. 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.

Elimination of Discrimination Based on National Origins

Present legislation establishes a system of annual quotas to govern immigration from each country. Under this system, 156,700 quota immigrants are permitted to enter the United States each year. The system is based upon the national origins of the population of the United States in 1920. The use of the year 1920 is arbitrary. It rests upon the fact that this system was introduced in 1924 and the last prior census was in 1920. The use of a national origins system is without basis in either logic or reason. It neither satisfies a national need nor accomplishes an international purpose. In an age of interdependence among nations, such a system is an anachronism, for it discriminates among applicants for admission into the United States on the basis of accident of birth.

Because of the composition of our population in 1920, the system is heavily weighted in favor of immigration from northern Europe and severely limits immigration from southern and eastern Europe and from other parts of the world. An American citizen with a Greek father or mother must wait at least 18 months to bring his parents here to join him. A citizen whose married son or daughter, or brother or sister, is Italian cannot obtain a quota number for them for an even longer time. Meanwhile, many thousands of quota numbers are wasted because they are not wanted or needed by nationals of the countries to which they are assigned.

I recommend that there be substituted for the national origins system a formula governing immigration to the United States which takes into account (1) the skills of the immigrant and their relationship to our needs, (a) the family relationship between immigrants and persons already here, so that the reuniting of families is encouraged, and (3) the priority of registration. Present law grants a preference to immigrants with special skills, education or training. It also grants a preference to various relatives of United States citizens and lawfully resident aliens. But it does so only within a national origins quota. It should be modified so that those with the greatest ability to add to the national welfare, no matter where they were born, are granted the highest priority. The next priority should go to those who seek to be reunited with their relatives. As between applicants with equal claims the earliest registrant should be the first admitted.

Many problems of fairness and foreign policy are involved in replacing a system so long entrenched. The national origins system has produced large backlogs of applications in some countries, and too rapid a change might, in a system of limited immigration, so drastically curtail immigration in some countries the only effect might be to shift the unfairness from one group of nations to another. A reasonable time to adjust to any new system must be provided if individual hardships upon persons who were relying on the present system are to be avoided. In addition, any new system must have sufficient flexibility to allow adjustments to be made when it appears that immigrants from nations closely allied to the United States will be unduly restricted in their freedom to furnish the new seed population that has so long been a source of strength to our nation.

            Accordingly, I recommend:

First, that existing quotas be reduced gradually, at the rate of 20 percent a year. The quota numbers released each year would be placed in a quota reserve pool, to be distributed on the new basis.

Second, that natives of no one country receive over 10 percent of the total quota numbers authorized in any one year. This will insure that the pattern of immigration is not distorted by excessive demand from any one country.

Third, that the President be authorized, after receiving recommendations from a 7-man Immigration Board, to reserve up to 50 percent of the unallocated quota numbers, for issuance to persons disadvantaged by the change in the quota system, and up to 20 percent to refugees whose sudden dislocation requires special treatment. The Immigration Board will be composed of 2 members appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, 2 members appointed by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and 3 members appointed by the President. In addition to its responsibility for formulating recommendations regarding the use of the quota reserve pool, the Board will make a continuous study of our immigration policy.

All Quota Numbers Used

But it is not alone the initial assignment of quota numbers which is arbitrary and unjust; additional inequity results from the failure of the law to permit full utilization of the authorized quota numbers. While American citizens wait for years for their relatives to receive a quota, approximately 60,000 quota numbers are wasted each year because the countries to which they are assigned have far more numbers allocated to them than they have emigrants seeking to move to the United States. There is no way at present in which these numbers can be reassigned to nations where immense backlogs of applicants for admission to the United States have accumulated. I recommend that this deficiency in the law be corrected.

Asia-Pacific Triangle

A special discriminatory formula is now used to regulate the immigration of persons who are attributable by their ancestry to an area called the Asia-Pacific triangle. This area embraces all countries from Pakistan to Japan and the Pacific islands north of Australia and New Zealand. Usually, the quota under which a prospective immigrant must enter is determined by his place of birth. However, if as much as one-half of an immigrant's ancestors came from nations in the Asia-Pacific triangle, he must rely upon the small quota assigned to the country of his ancestry, regardless of where he was born. This provision of our law should be repealed.

Other Provisions

In order to remove other existing barriers to the reuniting of families, I recommend two additional improvements in the law.

            First, parents of American citizens, who now have a preferred quota status, should be accorded nonquota status.

Second, parents of aliens resident in the United States, who now have no preference, should be accorded a preference, after skilled specialists and other relatives of citizens and alien residents.

These changes will have little effect on the number of immigrants admitted. They will have a major effect upon the individual hardships many of our citizens and residents now face in being separated from their parents.

In addition, I recommend the following changes in the law in order to correct certain deficiencies and improve its general application.

1. Changes in the Preference Structure. At present, the procedure under which specially skilled or trained workers are permitted to enter this country too often prevents talented people from applying for visas to enter the United States. It often deprives us of immigrants who would be helpful to our economy and our culture. This procedure should be liberalized so that highly trained or skilled persons may obtain a preference without requiring that they secure employment here before emigrating. In addition, I recommend that a special preference be accorded workers with lesser skills who can fill specific needs in short supply in this country.

2. Non-quota status for natives of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago should be granted. Under existing law, no numerical limitation is imposed upon the number of immigrants coming from Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Canal Zone, or any independent country in Central or South America. But the language of the statute restricts this privilege to persons born in countries in the Caribbean area which gained their independence prior to the date of the last major amendment to the immigration and nationality statutes, in 1952. This accidental discrimination against the newly independent nations of the Western Hemisphere should be corrected.

3. Persons afflicted with mental health problems should be admitted provided certain standards are met. Today, any person afflicted with a mental disease or mental defect, psychotic personality, or epilepsy, and any person who has suffered an attack of mental illness, can enter this country only if a private bill is enacted for his benefit. Families which are able and willing to care for a mentally ill child or parent are often forced to choose between living in the United States and leaving their loved ones behind and not living in the United States but being able to see and care for their loved ones. Mental illness is not incurable. It should be treated like other illnesses. I recommend that the Attorney General, at his discretion and under proper safeguards, be authorized to waive those provisions of the law which prohibit the admission to the United States of persons with mental problems when they are close relatives of United States citizens and lawfully resident aliens.

4. The Secretary of State should be authorized, in his discretion, to require re-registration of certain quota immigrant visa applicants and to regulate the time of payment of visa fees. This authority would bring registration lists up to date, terminate the priority of applicants who have refused to accept a visa, and end the problem of "insurance" registrations by persons who have no present intention to emigrate. Registration figures for oversubscribed quota areas are now inaccurate because there exists no way of determining whether registrants have died, have emigrated to other countries, or for some other reason no longer want to emigrate to the United States. These problems are particularly acute in heavily oversubscribed areas.


As I have already indicated the measures I have outlined will not solve all the problems of immigration. Many of them will require additional legislation; some cannot be solved by any one country. But the legislation I am submitting will insure that progress will continue to be made toward our ideals and toward the realization of humanitarian objectives. The measures I have recommended will help eliminate discrimination between peoples and nations on a basis that is unrelated to any contribution that immigrants can make and is inconsistent with our traditions of welcome. Our investment in new citizens has always been a valuable source of our strength.
            JOHN F. KENNEDY

NOTE: This is the text of identical letters addressed to the Honorable Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the Senate and to the Honorable John W. McCormack, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Reprinted with permission from John Wolley and Gerhard Peters of the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara at the American Presidency Project.

About The Author

This is part of the presidential paper historical series featuring past presidential public papers related to immigration law. The papers of our past Presidents show the impact of immigration law in American history. We thank the efforts of the American Presidency Project who have gathered these important archival documents.

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