Kennedy’s Legacy: Keep Immigration Reform in Our Sights

The death of Senator Ted Kennedy leaves a meteor-size hole in countless policy debates. This is most apparent in the current health care battle that is at a fevered pitch, and the senator’s absence is painfully felt at every turn. But his passions were wide and deep. As Mort Kondracke noted in Roll Call yesterday, immigration reform stands alongside health care reform as a core Kennedy priority, dating back to 1965 when he oversaw the passage of a sweeping immigration bill that eliminated ethnic quotas that had for decades ensured that immigration to the United States was almost exclusively from Western Europe. Every progressive immigration bill passed by the Senate in the 44 years since bears the Kennedy name and every restrictionist immigration bill was tempered by Kennedy’s tenacity.

As the grandson of Irish immigrants, Senator Kennedy and his brothers were deeply connected to their immigrant roots. A book by President John F. Kennedy entitled A Nation of Immigrants chronicles the waves of immigrants to American’s shores, and begins with an introduction by Robert Kennedy that says, “Our attitude toward immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as their talent and energy allow. Neither race nor creed nor place of birth should affect their chances.”

In the last few years Senator Kennedy laid the tracks to overhaul our grossly outdated immigration laws. In 2006, Senator Kennedy partnered with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and passed an immigration bill that would have legalized most of the 12 million living here without status. The bill had 23 Republican supporters and stood in stark contrast to the infamous 2005 House-passed immigration bill that would have made criminals of the 12 million.

At the heart of the Senate bill was Kennedy’s insight that to gain control and know who is in the United States, reform must require those without status to come forward and get in the system, rather than live and work outside the system. In 2007 Kennedy was part of a Republican-dominated unsuccessful effort to get reform passed once again in the Senate. The centerpiece of that battle was a poorly constructed bill, conceived with the aim of drawing Republican support that never materialized.

In the years since that bill failed the immigration debate has painfully raged on. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports a significant uptick in the number of hate groups who use immigrants as their rallying cry to attract support. The Pew Hispanic Center reported last year that 1 in 10 U.S. and foreign-born Latinos have been stopped by police or other authorities and asked about their immigration status. And the FBI’s most recent Hate Crime Statistic Report found that hate crimes against Latinos rose almost 40 percent between 2003 and 2006.

Virulent and vicious attacks of immigrants once limited to white supremacist and border state extremists have spilled into the mainstream as media pundits, politicians, and anti-immigrant activists put immigrants in the crosshairs and declare that they are the root of all that ails America (note that the current favorite lie of anti-health care activists is that undocumented immigrants are included in pending proposals). But by far the most heart-stopping reality is that a number of those hate crimes have led to murder.

Kennedy was the Latino community’s greatest ally and champion. His death leaves a void for the 12 million who have no voice, but that void and their silence is not permanent. The Kennedy vision of reform is indelibly stamped in the hearts and minds of a generation of leaders inside and outside of Washington. From President Barack Obama to the millions of Latinos, young and old, who have an unshakable belief in the American Dream, Kennedy’s passion and commitment will live on.

As Kennedy himself said when the immigration bill failed in 2007, “I’ve seen this happen time and time again. America always finds a way to solve its problems, expand its frontiers, and move closer to its ideals. It’s not always easy, but it is the American way.”

Angela Kelley is Vice President for Immigration Policy at American Progress.