Authored by Jannette Sheffield
A defining principle of American democracy is the inherent equality of all mankind. America’s history of immigration legislation illustrates, however, that advocates of equality must often struggle to cause this principle to be reflected in law. This document, which contains excerpts from material presented at the American Committee on Italian Migration’s (ACIM) Third National Symposium on Italian Immigration and American National Interest, shows that legislation antithetical to the values of democracy can be reformed through activism. The document highlights ACIM’s role in the trajectory from the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which resulted in large-scale national and racial discrimination, to the race-neutral reforms of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965. It exhibits ACIM’s advocacy for Italian immigrants in the U.S. political system, its instrumental role in influencing legislative reform and its use of Christian principles to inspire political participation.
ACIM, a member agency of the National Catholic Resettlement Council, was founded in 1952 to liberalize existing American immigration laws (Greenhouse, 2014). ACIM drew upon the social axiom of Catholic moral theology, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” to argue that the McCarran-Walter Act was inconsistent with the principles of American democracy (American Committee on Italian Migration [ACIM], 1963). The Act was described by a contemporary politician as “worthy of Stalin and not of America” because of its discriminatory national origin system, which reduced each country’s number of visas to the percentage of Americans whose ancestry could be traced to that country (Wasserman, 1953). Northern and Western Europeans were allotted significantly more visas than Italians and other immigrant groups (Chin, 1996). Italians, considered undesirable immigrants, were thereby prevented from reuniting with their families despite the fact that many visas allocated to countries with high quotas went unused (ACIM, 1963). These inequalities created a backlog of Italian citizens who otherwise met the conditions for entry, but could not immigrate solely because of their national origin. Such discrimination prompted ACIM to take on a leading role in organizing efforts to abolish nation-of-origin restrictions (Battisti, 2012). Through fundraising, national conventions and the development of chapters across the nation, ACIM advocated for immigration reform. ACIM inspired its members by appealing to their commitment to charity, a fundamental aspect of Catholic life. The opening remarks of Reverend Cesar Donanzan, ACIM’s Executive Secretary, who encouraged members to draw upon their faith to become advocates against social injustices, exemplify this activism (ACIM, 1963).
The symposium, strategically held in Washington D.C., gave ACIM members the opportunity to speak face-to-face with lawmakers such as President John F. Kennedy, Senator Phillip A. Hart and other governmental officials. ACIM was ultimately successful in influencing the passage of the landmark immigration reform, the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965. This Act, enacted under President Lyndon B. Johnson, replaced the national origins system with a policy that reflected humanitarian goals (Zhou, 2001). All visas would be awarded without regard to national origin and with a preference on reuniting families (Keeley, 1971). ACIM’s diligent efforts in promoting equality, its commitment to grassroots advocacy and its emphasis on family reunification undoubtedly contributed to the immigration reform of 1965, which reversed decades of institutionalized exclusion and led to profound demographic changes in immigration.
American Committee on Italian Migration, Proceedings of the Third National Symposium “Italian Immigration and American National Interest.” The Committee, 1963.
Battisti,Danielle, The American Committee on Italian Migration, Anti-Communism, and Immigration Reform, Journal of American Ethnic History 31 (2): 11–40. doi:10.5406/jamerethnhist.31.2.0011, 2012.
Chin, Gabriel J., The Civil Rights Revolution Comes to Immigration Law: A New Look at the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, North Carolina Law Review 75: 273–345, 1996.
Keely,Charles B., Effects of U. S. Immigration Law on Manpower Characteristics of Immigrants, Demography 12 (2): 179–91. doi:10.2307/2060759, 1975.
Greenhouse, N., American Committee on Italian Migration Addendum (CMS 001A), 1951-1999, http://archives.cmsny.org/2014/07/11/american-committee-on-italian-migration-records-cms-001a-1951-1999/, 2015.
Wasserman, Jack, The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 – Our New Alien and Sedition Law, Temple Law Quarterly 27: 62, 1953.
Zhou, Min., Contemporary Immigration and the Dynamics of Race and Ethnicity, In America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences, 1:200–242, Washington DC: National Academy Press. http://www.academia.edu/2601579/Contemporary_immigration_and_the_dynamics_of_race_and_ethnicity, 2001.