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Timeline of Ted Kennedy’s Immigration Achievements

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Senator Edward M. Kennedy

A Champion for Immigrants and the American Dream

(For a more detailed timeline of Kennedy’s work, visit the Senator’s Web site)

In his first speech announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, Edward M. Kennedy called for immigration reform.

1964: A cornerstone of Kennedy’s argument for passage of the Civil Rights Act centered on America’s history of becoming stronger by including immigrants and new cultures in our society.  He then challenged critics of the Civil Rights Act to extend that same legacy to African Americans.

1965: The Immigration Act of 1965 was the first major piece of legislation Senator Kennedy managed on the floor.  It ended a race-based immigration quota system and made professional skills and family relationships a priority in immigration decisions.  Kennedy said that his family’s immigrant history drove his passion to extend opportunity to all immigrants.

1980: The Refugee Act was written and passed by Sen. Kennedy.  “The act sought to eliminate the prevailing geographic and ideological preferences and to emphasize that persecution, not provenance, was to be the basis for determining refugee eligibility.”

1986: Sen. Kennedy was instrumental in passing immigration reform that provided legal status for an estimated 2.7 million undocumented workers living in the shadows.

1990: Senator Kennedy was also a key player in passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, which expanded immigration quotas to reunite families in the U.S. and meet economic needs.  The bill also created important programs like Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which provides temporary safe haven to persons fleeing oppressive governments or natural disasters.

1994: Sen. Kennedy sponsored the landmark Violence Against Women Act, which created special routes to immigration status for certain battered noncitizens. These provisions were updated in 2000 in the Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act.

1996: Kennedy was a harsh opponent of the three 1996 laws that represented our nation’s harshest crackdown on the rights of immigrants—including legal immigrants—in decades.  While he did not succeed in stripping all of the anti-immigrant provisions from the Illegal Immigration Reform and Control Act, Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death  Penalty Act, and Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, Kennedy did make important improvements to the legislation as it was advancing, and continued to fight for improvements after the legislation became law. 

1997: President William Jefferson Clinton signed Kennedy’s Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act into law, granting permanent residence status to Central American and Cuban immigrants fleeing repressive governments.

1998: Kennedy championed the cause of Haitian immigrants and succeeded in passing the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA).

2001: Sen. Kennedy lead the fight for the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act, which granted access to permanent residence status for certain immigrants excluded from the 1986 law, opened up a short window of time for undocumented immigrants with family or employer sponsors to apply for legal permanent residency, and created other visa programs to reunite American families. 

2002: Senator Kennedy was the lead Democratic sponsor of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act to strengthen the security of our borders and improve our nation’s ability to deter potential terrorists.

2005: Senator Kennedy and Senator John McCain of Arizona crafted the bipartisan Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005.  

2006: Senators Kennedy, McCain, Salazar (D-CO), Graham (R-SC), and others lead the charge to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the U.S. Senate with a vote of 62 to 36.  Unfortunately, the House of Representatives refused to move forward. Kennedy was given a hero’s welcome by a crowd of over 250,000 on the national mall as a part of the historic marches for immigration reform. 

2007: Senator Kennedy once again lead the charge to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. Senate, but the bill failed in a 46 to 53 vote.  Even after the immigration reform legislation failed Kennedy said “I’m encouraged by what the leaders said…that they have every intention of continuing the immigration bill on the front order of business for the agenda of the United States Senate.”


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