This attempt to reform immigration laws responded to long-standing criticisms that they crippled U.S. international relations. However, the McCarran-Walter Act retained the national origins quotas as the core principle for controlling immigration even though it granted immigration quotas to all countries, including newly independent former colonies in Asia and Africa, and completely removed the racial restrictions on citizenship by naturalization. Despite this symbolically significant gesture to racial egalitarianism, 85 percent of immigration quotas were allocated to western and northern Europeans while Asian countries had comparatively tiny quotas, with Japan’s being the largest at 185. Asians remained the only population tracked by race, with their overall immigration capped at 2,000 per year by the Asian-Pacific Triangle restriction.
This law initiated other significant reforms such as a preference system that prioritized immigration by skilled workers and then family reunification. As under the 1924 quota system, spouses, minor children, and parents of adult U.S. citizens were considered nonquota immigrants. Women gained status as primary immigrants who could bring in spouses and minor children. The U.S. attorney general could admit refugees on a parole basis.
Nonetheless, the law remained unacceptably discriminatory in the eyes of many and campaigns for reform continued. President Harry Truman vetoed the law in protest of its limited provisions for refugees, only to be overturned by Congress.
AN ACT To revise the laws relating to immigration, naturalization, and nationality; and for other purposes.
. . .
CHAPTER 1—QUOTA SYSTEM NUMERICAL LIMITATIONS ; ANNUAL QUOTA BASED UPON NATIONAL ORIGIN ; MINIMUM QUOTAS
SEC. 201. (a) The annual quota of any quota area shall be one-sixth of 1 per centum of the number of inhabitants in the continental United States in 1920 . . . except for the purpose of computing quotas for quota areas within the Asia-Pacific triangle . . . That the quota existing for Chinese persons prior to the date of enactment of this Act shall be continued, and . . . the minimum quota for any quota area shall be one hundred . . . .
DETERMINATION OF QUOTA TO WHICH AN IMMIGRANT IS CHARGEABLE
SEC. 202. (a) Each independent country, self-governing dominion, mandated territory, and territory under the international trusteeship system of the United Nations, other than the United States and its outlying possessions and the countries specified in section 101 (a) (27) (C), shall be treated as a separate quota area when approved by the Secretary of State. All other inhabited lands shall be attributed to a quota area specified by the Secretary of State . . . .
GENERAL CLASSES OF ALIENS INELIGIBLE TO RECEIVE VISAS AND EXCLUDED FROM ADMISSION SEC. 212. (a) . . . .
(28) Aliens who are, or at any time have been, members of any of the following classes: (A) Aliens who are anarchists; (B) Aliens who advocate or teach, or who are members of or affiliated with any organization that advocates or teaches, opposition to all organized government; (C) Aliens who are members of or affiliated with (i) the Communist Party of the United States, (ii) any other totalitarian party of the United States, (iii) the Communist Political Association, (iv) the Communist or any other totalitarian party of any State of the United States, of any foreign state, or of any political or geographical subdivision of any foreign state . . . .
IMMEDIATE DEPORTATION OF ALIENS EXCLUDED FROM ADMISSION OR ENTERING I N VIOLATION OF LAW
SEC. 237. (a) Any alien (other than an alien crewman) arriving in the United States who is excluded under this Act, shall be immediately deported to the country whence he came, in accommodations of the same class in which he arrived, on the vessel or aircraft bringing him, unless the Attorney General, in an individual case, in his discretion, concludes that immediate deportation is not practicable or proper…
TITLE III—NATIONALITY AND NATURALIZATION
CHAPTER 1—NATIONALITY AT BIRTH AND BY COLLECTIVE NATURALIZATION
ELIGIBILITY FOR NATURALIZATION
SEC. 311. The right of a person to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of race or sex or because such person is married. Notwithstanding section 405 (b), this section shall apply to any person whose petition for naturalization shall hereafter be filed, or shall have been pending on the effective date of this Act.
Analysis of the McCarran-Walter Act by F. Odo:
This legislation eliminated all restrictions on naturalization, finally allowing Japanese immigrants to become American citizens. It followed earlier legislation permitting Chinese, Filipinos, and Asian Indians to naturalize . . . Its major limitations was the retention of the quota system that severely limited immigration from Asian and Pacific nations. The act also broadened definition of deportable and excludable aliens and those of potentially subversive intent, creating language to validate possible mass detention. And while the elimination of the 1917 “barred zone” was positive, a new term, “the Asia-Pacific triangle,” permitted a maximum of only 2,000 immigrants from the nineteen countries included . . . President Harry Truman, feeling that the act did not go far enough to remove objectionable elements, vetoed the bill, but he was overridden by Congress. In later years, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson worked to eliminate the racially restrictive quota system (p. 335).
Odo, F. (Ed.) (2002). The Columbia documentary history of the Asian American experience. New York, NY: Columbia University Press
Analysis of the McCarran-Walter Act by M. Ngai:
In 1947, in the midst of debate over war-refugee policy and in large measure in response to that crisis, the Senate authorized a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee to conduct a comprehensive study of the nation’s immigration policy, the first time since the Dillingham Commission of 1907-1910 . . . after the 1948 elections Senator Pat McCarran took over the chair a . . . McCarran, a conservative and devout Catholic from Nevada, was a dedicated anti-Communist and Cold War warrior . . . [The] 250-page draft omnibus bill introduced by McCarran in 1950-and the legislation that Congress ultimately passed in 1952-have been considered most notable for their preservation of the national origins quota system. But preserving the national origins quotas was not the central motivation . . . Rather, McCarran saw revision of the nation’s immigration laws as a tool in the United States’ urgent battle against Communism.
McCarran viewed immigration policy a matter of “internal security.” The Senate subcommittee’s report rehearsed the well-worn charge that “the Communist movement in the United States is an alien movement, sustained, augmented, and controlled by European Communists and the Soviet Union.” McCarran stressed the need to “bring our immigration system into line with the realities of Communist tactics…”
In 1952 Congress passed the omnibus Immigration and Naturalization Act, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act. In typical Cold War language, McCarran described the law as a necessary weapon to preserve “this Nation, the last hope of Western Civilization.” He added, “If this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated, or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished.”
The McCarran-Walter Act replaced the Immigration Act of 1917 as the nation’s foundational immigration law (and it remains so today, as amended)… The law retained the numerical ceiling of 155,000 quota-immigrants per year based on the national origins formula of 1924, which was numerically more restrictive than previous policy in light of increase in the nation’s population since 1924. There was no specific provisions for admitting refugees. The law’s sponsors stated there was no claim to “any theory of Nordic superiority,” only concern for “similarity of cultural background.” But the retention of the national origins quotas reflected that logic which cast the native-born as the most loyal Americans, especially whites of British and north European descent, and the foreign-born as subversive, especially Jews, who were imagined as Bolsheviks, and Italians, who were viewed as anarchists.
While also preserving nonquota immigration from countries of the Western Hemisphere, it imposed quotas on the former British colonies in the Caribbean, a move that was designed to limit the migration of black people into the United States. The law’s Asiatic policy contained both progressive and reactionary elements. The law eliminated the racial bar to citizenship, which finally ended Japanese and Korean exclusion and made policy consistent with the recent repeals of Chinese, Indian, and Filipino exclusion. It was arguably the most important reform of the McCarran-Walter Act, as it established, for the first time, the general principle of color-blind citizenship. But the law also created an “Asia Pacific Triangle,” which was a global race quota aimed at restricting Asian immigration into the United States..
Ngai, M. M. (2004). Impossible subjects: Illegal aliens and the making of modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.