His record on the issue has quite literally changed the face of the nation.
From the 1965 overhaul that ended a system of national quotas to the failed drive launched in 2007 for comprehensive reform, Kennedy has been at the front lines making the case for a more open immigration system.
Taking a long view – compromising when needed, reaching for more the next time – he achieved it.
Senator Kennedy’s tactics varied and coalition partners shifted during his 47 years in the Senate, but the core principle he defended never varied: The US is a nation of immigrants, he said.
“I look across this historic gathering and I see the future of America,” he said at an immigration rally in Washington on April 10, 2006.
In speeches, Kennedy often invoked the Golden Steps he could see from his Boston office, where new waves of immigrants, including his eight grandparents, came off the docks into East Boston – and a world where “No Irish Need Apply.”
In 1965, Kennedy led the drive for immigration reform in the Senate. Although some Irish groups lobbied against the bill, Kennedy said the current system of national quotas that favored northern Europe violated the American values.
“This bill goes to the very central ideals of our country,” he said during floor debate. “Our streets may not be paved with gold, but they are paved with the promise that men and women who live here – even strangers and new newcomers – can rise as fast, as far as their skills will allow, no matter what their color is, no matter what the place of their birth.”
In response to critics, he also famously claimed that the change to a system opening immigration to all nations and favoring family unification would not change the mix of the country.
"The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs,” he said during the Senate debate.
“That 1965 law was first big thing that that he really drove himself. Since then, he’s been making immigration policy for the country,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
In 1980, Kennedy drafted the Refugee Act of 1980, which set up a system to qualify for political asylum consistent with international law. The numbers seeking refugee status – 1.1 million in the first 10 years – exceeded expectations.
In the campaign for the 1986 amnesty law, Kennedy predicted that the law would grant citizenship to no more than 1.3 million people. “We will secure the borders henceforth. We will never again bring forward another amnesty bill like this,” he said.
But by 2007, the number of people in the country illegally had jumped to more than 12 million.
His later years
Kennedy also drafted legislation in 1990 to expand opportunities for citizenship to skilled workers and, more recently, to open doors for Iraqi refugees.
At the end of this Senate career, he was working on a comprehensive immigration plan that would propose a path to citizenship for some 12 million people now in the US illegally, as well as stronger border enforcement and employee sanctions.
His persistence was evidence of his incremental approach to comprehensive reform. “He really did believe that there were issues you could give on and then come back later and fix,… that when you didn’t get all you wanted the first time, you kept coming back and making it better,” she says.
His impact on the individual lives of immigrants in the United States was profound, advocates say. “I was always struck by the sheer number of immigrant families in Massachusetts who have been helped by the senator,” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “Senator Kennedy was legendary for helping people move through the system."
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