The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of June 27, 1952, was a major revision of existing immigration and nationality law. It continued, with modifications, the essential elements of both the 1917 and 1924 Acts, as well as those provisions of the Internal Security Act of September 23, 1950, relating to the exclusion of Communists.
The 1952 INA reflected the cold war atmosphere and anti-communism of the period, following World War II at the onset of the Korean War. The law was in essence an act of conservatism rather that of intolerance. The difference between the climate of opinion in the 1920s and the early 1950s is apparent in the following statement in the 1950 report of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Without giving credence to any theory of Nordic superiority, the subcommittee believes that the adoption of the national origins quota formula was a rational and logical method of numerically restricting immigration in such a manner as to best preserve the sociological and cultural balance of the United States.” In contrast to the 1920s, the case for the national origins quota system in the 1950s was not generally argued on the grounds of racial superiority, but on sociological theories of the time relating to cultural assimilation. The discriminatory provisions against most Asian countries were also slightly relaxed by the 1952 Act.
However, the legislation was characterized by supporters and opponents alike as restrictionist, and it was a severe disappointment to those who had hoped for a liberalization of the immigration law. In particular, the continuation of the national origins quota system was viewed by critics of the legislation as being inappropriate to the needs of U.S. foreign policy. Foremost among these critics was President Truman, whose veto was overridden by a vote of 278 to 113 in the House, and 57 to 26 in the Senate. Quoting from his veto message:
Today, we are protecting ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic…We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again…these are only a few examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law. In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.
In addition to continuing the national origins quota system for the Eastern Hemisphere, the INA also established a four-category selection system. Fifty percent of each national quota was allocated for distribution to aliens with high education or exceptional abilities, and the remaining three preference categories were divided among specified relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens. This four-point selection system was the antecedent of our current system, which places higher priority on family reunification than on needed skills. However, under the 1952 law, national origins remained the determining factor in immigrant admissions, and Northern and Western Europe were heavily favored. As in the past, the Western Hemisphere was not subject to numerical limitations.
Immigration during the decade 1951 to 1960 totaled 2,515,479 (an average of about 250,000 per year), the highest since the 1920s. This is not surprising, since the two intervening decades included the depression of the 1930s and World War II. The gap between Eastern and Western Hemisphere immigration also narrowed: of the 2.5 million entries, almost a million entered from the Western Hemisphere.
Less than half of the immigrants who entered during the 1950s were admitted under the quota system. Many came under special temporary laws enacted to permit the admission of refugees and family members outside the quotas, and many others entered as nonquota immigrants (e.g., from the Western Hemisphere). The gradual recognition that the national origins quota system was not functioning effectively as a means of regulating immigration was an important factor leading to the next major policy revision, which came in 1965.