Introduction by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

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My brother Jack wrote “A Nation of Immigrants” in 1958, and his words ring true as clearly today as they did half a century ago. No one spoke more eloquently about our history and heritage as a nation of immigrants or fought harder on behalf of fair and rational immigration laws than President Kennedy.

One of his last acts as President was to propose a major series of immigration reforms to end the ugly race-based national origins quota system, which had defined our admissions policies in that era. As he told Congress in July 1963: “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.”

A century and a half ago, all eight of our Irish great-grandparents successfully crossed the Atlantic in the famous vessels that were known as coffin ships because so many people failed to survive the arduous voyage. They arrived in Boston Harbor, came up the “Golden Stairs,” and passed through the city’s Immigration Hall on their way to a better life for themselves and their families. From my office in Boston, I can still see those “Golden Stairs,” and I’m constantly reminded of my immigrant heritage.

As President Kennedy put it, “This was the secret of America: a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers, people eager to build lives for themselves in a spacious society that did not restrict their freedom of choice and action.”

Immigration is in our blood. It’s part of our founding story. In the early 1600’s, courageous men and women sailed in search of freedom and a better life. Arriving in Jamestown and Plymouth, they founded a great nation. For centuries ever since, countless other brave men and women have made the difficult decision to leave their homes and seek better lives in this Promised Land.

In New York harbor, there stands a statue that represents the enduring ideal of what has made this nation great, a beacon on a hill. At her feet, on the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands, are inscribed the eloquent words of the poet Emma Lazarus:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Immigrants today come from all corners of the world, representing every race and creed. They work hard. They practice their faith. They love their families. And they love this country. We would not be a great nation today without them. But whether we remain true to that history and heritage is a major challenge.

There is no question that the immigration system needs to be reformed to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. The urgent issue before us is about the future of America. It is about our pride for our immigrant past and our pride for our immigrant future. We know the high price of continuing inaction. Raids and other enforcement actions will escalate, terrorizing our communities and businesses. 
The twelve million undocumented immigrants now in our country will become millions more. Sweatshops will grow, and undermine American workers and their wages. State and local governments will take matters into their own hands and pass a maze of conflicting laws that hurt our country. We will have the kind of open border that is unacceptable in our post 9-11 world.

Immigration reform is an opportunity to be true to our ideals as a nation. At the heart of the issue of immigration is hope. Hope for a better life for hard-working people and their families. Hope for their children. Martin Luther King had a dream that children would be judged solely by "the content of their character." That dream will never die. I believe that we will soon succeed in enacting the kind of reform that our ideals and national security demand.

As we continue the battle, we will have ample inspiration in the lives of the immigrants all around us. From Jamestown to the Pilgrims to the Irish to today's workers, people have come to this country in search of opportunity. They have sought nothing more than the chance to work hard and bring a better life to themselves and their families. They come to our country with their hearts and minds full of hope. I believe we can build the kind of tough, fair and practical reform that is worthy of our shared history as immigrants and as Americans.

With these challenges in mind, I commend this volume. Written five decades ago, its powerful vision still guides us.


Kennedy’s words
from A Nation of Immigrants
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