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The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 opened some doors and slammed others shut. Better known as the McCarran-Walter Act after its immigration-restrictionist Senate and House sponsors, the act mixed racist anti-immigration traditions with the reactionary domestic politics of the Cold War. It sparked a “cross-fire between minorities,” as the Chicago Defender described it, in a classic case of divide-and-conquer, pitting Asian Americans against Black Americans in a zero-sum fight over who got the golden immigration/citizenship tickets to the United States. Historian Jane Hong details how the efforts for and against this complex overhauling of immigration policy especially damaged Japanese American and African American (and Caribbean American) relations, at least in the short term.

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President Harry S. Truman actually vetoed McCarran-Walter, but his veto was overridden by both houses of Congress. The act’s repressive provisions became notorious during the 1950s. Some are still on the books. The law was used to detain and deport suspected subversives, denaturalize foreign-born radicals (or suspected radicals), ban homosexual immigrants, and seal off America’s borders to those with actual or imaginary Communist or other radical associations, a serious blow against free speech (not to mention free hearing).

At the same time, McCarran-Walter ended the “Asiatic barred zone” ban on Asian immigration. The demise of “Asian exclusion” was a definite victory for Asian Americans, though it was largely symbolic. The new race-based quota system gave most countries in the “Asia-Pacific Triangle” just 100 slots per year (Japan got 185), for a grand total of 2000 Asian immigrants annually. Eighty-five percent of all immigration slots were dedicated to western and northern Europeans.

In addition to this unprecedented cracking open of the immigration door, McCarran-Walter also included a firm slamming. A provision called by its opponents the “empire quota” choked off the ability of colonial subjects, typically African Caribbean, to immigrate to the US. Many thousands of Caribbeans of African descent had immigrated to the US this way from the 1920s through the 1940s, using national quota slots unfilled by white Europeans. The new quota drastically reduced Caribbean migration to the US, even though civil rights, pan-African, and Caribbean American all groups fought hard against it.

Hong details how Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) lobbyist Mike Masaoka pushed for passage of McCarran-Walter because it ended Asian exclusion and allowed for the naturalization of first-generation Japanese immigrants. Called Issei in Japanese, first-generation immigrants had long been in a limbo as “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” It was personal for Masaoka, an American-born birthright citizen (second-generation or Nissei), who wanted to see his parent’s generation brought in from the legal cold before they died of old age.

In its determination to get Issei-citizenship at any cost, JACL was opposed by many, even other Japanese Americans concerned about McCarran-Walter’s total package. As soon as McCarran-Walter passed, the JACL leadership shifted to working for civil rights and broader immigration reforms, helping to repair the damage done to Japanese American/Black American relations. Answering criticism from Chinese and Korean Americans, Hong writes that Masaoka “openly expressed regret over JACL’s decision to support McCarran-Walter’s race-based quotas for Asian countries as the ‘price’ that had to be ‘paid’ for Issei citizenship eligibility.”

JACL and other Japanese American organizations also combined forces with many other organizations to push for the major revision of immigration law that came about with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. That landmark legislation finally abolished the race-based national origins formulas behind quotas.

Another united front effort was made to end the mass detention provisions of another law with Pat McCarran’s name on it, the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950. This gave US presidents the ability to do what Roosevelt had used an executive order for in 1942: detain as many people as they wanted to. (Two-thirds of the more than 125,000 Japanese Americans put into concentration camps during World War II were American citizens.) McCarran’s concentration camp law was repealed in 1971, but executive orders are still a thing.

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Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 87, No. 4 (FALL 2018), pp. 667–701
University of California Press