Religion and the Postwar Politics of Immigration Reform: Workshop with Prof. Wendy Wall


If we took the word of the President who signed it into law—or the subsequent cues of many historians of mid 20th-century U.S. history—the 1965 Immigration Act requires no serious revisiting. In LBJ’s eyes, the Act, which removed longstanding national origins quotas and put a ceiling on immigration from Western Hemisphere countries, would have a negligible effect on the lives of Americans. However, as Binghamton University Associate Professor of History Wendy L. Wall described in introducing her March 9 colloquium-slash-workshop at the Kinder Institute, Johnson’s prognosis could not have been less accurate. Of its many consequences, the Act transformed and diversified national identity, generated and sustained illegal immigration to the U.S. from within the Western Hemisphere, and is still relevant to contemporary debates about education policy, religion in the public sphere, and border control (to name only a few policy areas in which its impact continues to be felt).

As for the Act’s historiographical profile, Prof. Wall pointed out how it is rarely written about at great length, and even when it is, it is often treated, far too simplistically, as the inevitable product of a liberal consensus. First and foremost, she argued, this reading glosses over how both houses of Congress overwhelmingly, and in spite of Truman’s executive veto, supported the passage of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, which more or less maintained precisely the restrictive immigration policies that the 1965 legislation set out to overturn. Because of this, Prof. Wall continued, the received history of the Immigration Act fails to address two primary questions: (1) how and why emphatically pro-status quo sentiment morphed into widespread pro-reform sentiment in just 13 years; and, with this in mind, (2) whether consensus can adequately or realistically capture the nuance of what drove and defined liberal changes to existing norms.

As she outlined in the remainder of her talk, her current project attempts to restore drama and contingency to this historical narrative by examining the wide range of groups that stoked public support for reform in the years between McCarran-Walter and the 1965 Immigration Act, including the various religious actors who were the focus of the March 9 discussion. The central role of religious actors within this history, Prof. Wall explained, emerges out of Truman’s post-McCarran-Walter attempt to galvanize “public conscience” through the creation of the Presidential Commission on Immigration and Naturalization, a handpicked group of seven pro-reform leaders from multiple faith traditions tasked with outlining ways in which to bring immigration law “into line with our national ideals and our foreign policy.” Interviews conducted by the Commission reflected broad (though by no means unanimous) public belief that the status quo perpetuated by McCarran-Walter repudiated, among other things, basic religious concepts concerning the brotherhood of man. Still, Prof. Wall countered, the media-driven idea that the Commission’s work likewise revealed a “tri-faith consensus” among Catholics, Jews, and mainline Protestants about not only the need for but also the nature of sweeping immigration reform is quite overstated.

In fact, while each group certainly did want to have a hand in shaping the contours of immigration reform, there were sometimes deeply-seated intra- and inter-faith divisions about how and why to go about this. Within the Catholic church, for example, the National Catholic Welfare Conference initially came out in public support of McCarran-Walter, pragmatically claiming that it was marginally preferable to the status quo and that passing a more suitable alternative was politically impossible, only to be showered with active dissent from a number of high-ranking church officials, most notably (and most vocally) Monsignor John O’Grady, who would go on to sit on Truman’s immigration commission.

As for inter-faith divisions, cracks began to form around a number of issues, but particularly when discussion of reform bled into discussion of surplus population. Within the Catholic Church, there was widespread belief in a moral obligation to relieve economically and ecologically strained nations of surplus population on the grounds that doing so not only aligned with humans’ natural right to migrate but also placed a check on the spread of Communism. This reform logic, Prof. Wall showed, set Catholics subtly but importantly apart from the other two tri-faith consensus members. Jewish organizations, she noted, were less focused on relieving global population and economic pressures and more interested in the symbolic value of reform: erasing the Anti-Semitic stigma conveyed by, and the Anti-Semitic attitudes sustained by, national origins quotas. For their part, mainline Protestant groups, not unlike their Catholic counterparts, were morally opposed to national origins quotas and, even more than this, passionately in support of immigration reform as a means of better assisting refugees, escapees, and displaced persons. The point of departure, however, was the surplus population argument for a right to migration, which many high profile Protestant organizations deemed “foolhardy” and responded to both by encouraging restraint and family planning in overcrowded areas as a better solution to the problem and by associating the problem itself with Catholic doctrine’s stimulation of population growth.


Wendy L. Wall received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Twentieth-Century U.S. History and currently serves as Associate Professor of History at Binghamton University. Prof. Wall’s first book, Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press, 2008; paperback, 2009), was a co-winner of the Organization of American Historians’ 2008 Ellis Hawley Prize, winner of the Phi Alpha Theta First Book Award (2008), and a semi-finalist for the Harry S. Truman Book Award (2010), and she is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, Rockefeller Archive Center, Gilder Lehrman Institute, and National Endowment for the Humanities, among other places.