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Kennedy opened U.S. doors to Caribbeans

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Were it not for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Boston’s Caribbean Carnival would be a lot smaller, if it existed at all.

The first major legislation that Kennedy ushered through Congress rewrote the nation’s immigration law, opening the country to exponentially more people from the Caribbean, who ventured out to the annual carnival last Saturday in the wind and rain, not long after the late senator’s funeral concluded on nearby Mission Hill.

That 1965 law eliminated racially tinged quotas that favored immigrants from Europe and restricted the number who could come from Asia and the countries emerging from colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean. From the entire continent of Africa, for instance, the annual limit on immigrants had been 1,400 — less than 1 percent of Europe’s quota.

In the case of Jamaica and Trinidad, which both won independence in 1962, only 100 immigrants from each were allowed every year. That was the minimum for any country.

“Most of us would not be here at all. We owe a great debt of gratitude,” said Clarence Cooper, president of Unity Sports and Cultural Club in Dorchester.

Born in Trinidad, Cooper spent two years on a work visa in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands before arriving on the mainland with an immigrant visa in 1967.

Two years later, Neil Osborne, president of Jamaican Associates, immigrated with his parents at age 5. The family was able to resettle because his father’s brother was already in the United States. Reuniting close relatives was made a priority in the 1965 law that Kennedy got passed.

“Jamaicans significantly understood how he championed immigration in a fair and equal way, and your skin color shouldn’t matter,” said Osborne, a lawyer who represents victims of job discrimination. “He made sure people from the Caribbean could come.”

Kennedy’s assistance to Caribbean immigrants did not end with that law. Community leaders this week attested to his staff’s swift and effective intervention over the years to reunite families with relatives who had been left behind.

Beulah Providence, executive director of the Caribbean Foundation of Boston, which provides home health services, said she frequently referred immigrants to Kennedy’s office for help obtaining visas for family members.

“They called his office, and they got good help,” said Providence, who came from Dominica in 1960. “They got help with their papers.”

The Rev. Nicolas Homicil, senior pastor of the Voice of the Gospel Tabernacle in Mattapan, said Kennedy staffers helped Haitian immigrants in the same way, and also helped relatives in Haiti obtain short-term visas to attend funerals in the United States.

“The Haitian community and the minority community at large are going to miss Senator Kennedy,” said Homicil, who immigrated in 1971.

Kennedy’s staff could get results fast. Back in the 1970s, an immigrant couple who had been in the country for a couple years were having difficulty getting visas to enable their five children in Trinidad to join them, Cooper recalled.

The husband went downtown to see someone in Kennedy’s office and, by the time he returned home, consular officials were calling to say the visas would be available the next day in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad’s capital.

“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.