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Kennedy opened U.S. doors to Caribbeans

Associated Press | 9/2/2009, 5:11 a.m.

“You hear so many people here talking about things similar to that,” Cooper said in a telephone interview Monday.

His wife, Jemma Cooper, overheard his comment and got on the line to share her own family’s story. Thirty years ago, she said, her mother immigrated under her maiden name. Then she had a hard time obtaining permission to bring three other children from Trinidad — because she used her married name on those papers — until Kennedy’s staff straightened out the confusion.

That kind of constituent service for so many from the Caribbean has been needed only because of the transformative impact of the 1965 immigration law.

Despite the low quotas for Trinidad, Jamaica and the continent of Africa, even fewer immigrants from those places were actually entering the United States. In 1963, The Associated Press reported that no predominantly black nation was using up its quota.

The 1965 law took full effect in 1968. In the following decade, “West Indian immigration exceeded that of the previous 70 years,” author Philip Kasinitz has noted. “By the early 1980s, approximately 50,000 legal immigrants from the Anglophone Caribbean and another 6,000 to 8,000 from Haiti were entering the United States annually.”

Other factors contributed to the rise. The law’s focus on neutral criteria such as kinship ties and job skills was inspired by civil rights legislation, which made the country appear more welcoming to black immigrants. Independence also shifted the destination of most Caribbean immigrants away from the former colonial powers.

“We have discriminated against some people over others, contrary to our basic principles as a nation,” Kennedy said in opening debate on the immigration bill on Sept. 17, 1965.

The legislation was actually a Kennedy co-production. Before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy proposed a similar bill in July 1963. He specifically asked Congress to lift the quotas on Jamaica and Trinidad, limits he called “accidental discrimination against the newly independent nations of the Western Hemisphere.”

At the time, President Kennedy noted, no quotas existed for Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic or any other countries in the hemisphere except Jamaica and Trinidad.

In its original form, the legislation was drafted by the Justice Department while Robert F. Kennedy was attorney general. He voted for the final version as a senator from New York.

The four intervening decades of immigration have created a Caribbean community that has sustained the carnival since 1973. In the 2000 Census, more than 81,000 Massachusetts residents indicated they were at least partially of West Indian descent.