In 1952, the Congress passed over President Harry Truman's veto the Immigration and Naturalization Act, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act after its sponsors, Senator Pat McCarran and Representative Francis Walter. McCarran saw the act in Cold War terms, to defend the nation and Western civilization from contamination and destruction by alien forces. Immigration policy, he believed, was a matter of national security to combat the threat of communism. McCarran was a devout Catholic and an ardent anticommunist.
The McCarran-Walter Act replaced the 1917 Immigration Act, and it remains the nation's foundational immigration law. It is notable in preserving the national origins quota of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act that established racist quotas favoring Northern Europeans and discriminating against Southern and Eastern Europeans and especially Africans and Asians. Denying the charge of racism, the McCarran-Walter sponsors claimed to favor “similarity of cultural background,” which corresponded with Northern Europeans and Western civilization. Meanwhile, Africans and Asians were constrained by quotas that limited their admission into the United States to about 100 per country each year.
Despite its racist core, the act extended naturalization to Japanese and Korean Americans, a right denied them since the 1790 Naturalization Act, which limited naturalization to “free white persons.” Earlier, during the 1940s and 1950s, other Asian groups were given the right to naturalize—the Chinese, Filipinos, and South Asians. The McCarran-Walter Act, thereby, eliminated race as a requirement for citizenship through naturalization. At the same time, it created an Asia Pacific Triangle, which imposed annual quotas of 100 of people from and originally from that triangle. In those ways, the McCarran-Walter Act finally removed race as a qualification for U.S. citizenship while preserving immigration restrictions for Asians to prevent them from entering the United States in large numbers.
The McCarran-Walter Act introduced preferences that shaped the nature of immigration, including a preference for applicants with the education and skills for occupations considered to be in short supply in the United States, and family reunification preferences for the spouses, children, and parents of
permanent resident aliens. Those preferences, reinforced by the 1965 Immigration Act, would prove highly influential in shaping the demography of Asians in the United States.
Finally, indicative of the McCarran-Walter Act's Cold War concern over communism and internal security, the act featured deportation provisions for aliens considered by the U.S. government detrimental to the public interest, and the denaturalization and loss of U.S. citizenship if engaged in subversive activities, involved with organizations against the national interest, or even refusing to testify about those activities and organizations.
For Japanese Americans specifically, the McCarran-Walter Act ended their classification as “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” which had prevented their entry into citizenship and therewith, rights. The alien land laws, for instance, which limited issei economic mobility was based on that legal category of “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” Moreover, as aliens and “enemy aliens” during World War II, Japanese Americans were more easily denied their rights as permanent residents and, in the case of the nisei, citizens. That denial facilitated martial law and selective detention of Japanese Americans in Hawai'i, and the mass removal and detention of Japanese Americans on the West Coast.
Gary Y. Okihiro