Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952

The Law: Federal legislation that removed restrictions on Asian immigration while also tightening government control over suspected subversive organizations and individuals

Date: Enacted on June 27, 1952

Also known as: McCarran-Walter Act

Significance: This federal law upheld the national origins quota system established by the Immigration Act of 1924, which gave preference to individuals of northern and western European lineage. It also created a system of preferences for skilled workers and relatives of citizens and permanent residents, repealed the last of the existing measures to exclude Asian immigration, and enacted strict security provisions over suspected subversives and “undesirable aliens.”

Named for its congressional sponsors and passed by Congress over President Harry S. Truman’s veto, the McCarran-Walter Act, or Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, reaffirmed the quota system designed during the 1920’s that favored northern and western Europeans. At the same time, however, it also removed a racist restriction— “aliens ineligible for citizenship”—that had been used against Asian immigration for generations, while keeping the small number of quotas in place. It gave first preference to highly qualified immigrants with skills urgently needed in the United States, along with the spouses and children of such immigrants. Other preferences depended on family relationships.

Preferences Under the 1952 Law

  • First: highly qualified professionals with desirable skills 
  • Second: parents of U.S. citizens 
  • Third: spouses and unmarried adult children of resident aliens 
  • Fourth: other relatives, brothers, sisters, and married children of resident aliens

The law’s quota numbers for European immigrants were raised slightly from the 1920 base of 154,000, to 158,000, and northwestern Europe was allocated 85 percent of these slots, with Great Britain (65,000), Germany (26,000) and Ireland (18,000) receiving two-thirds of the total. The number for Asian nations was set at 2,000 visas annually. No quota restrictions were placed on spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere. During the ensuing decades, the law would have a significant impact on immigration from Mexico and other Latin American nations. The legislation also made deportation easier and provided for fines and imprisonment for any person convicted of harboring an undocumented alien.

The legislation also sought to raise legal barriers, even preventing temporary visitor visas, against suspected subversives and persons regarded as “undesirable aliens.” Section 212(a) of the law listed thirty-one categories of inadmissible aliens, including those

who write or publish . . . or who knowingly circulate, distribute, print, or display, any written or printed matter, advocating or teaching opposition to all organized government, or advocating or teaching . . . the economic, international, and governmental doctrines of world communism.

President Truman and his supporters thought that any political litmus test of that nature was against America’s traditions of freedom of thought and expression, and political belief.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, a number of highprofile cases highlighted the “undesirable aliens” section of the McCarran-Walter Act. Under this provision, visas were denied to such “undesirable aliens” as Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, British author and later Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, British author Graham Greene, and Canadian writer Farley Mowat. All these distinguished persons were denied normal visas to enter the United States because they did not meet the ideological-exclusion provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.

John Boyd

Further Reading

  • Bon Tempo, Carl J. Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees During the ColdWar. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008. 
  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004. 
  • Tichenor, Daniel J. Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. 

See also: Congress, U.S.; History of immigration after 1891; Hull-House; Immigration Act of 1924; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965; Immigration law; Luce-Celler Bill of 1946; McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950; “Undesirable aliens.”

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