McCarran-Walter Act

The McCarran-Walter Act was the first major U.S. immigration law in thirty years. It largely preserved the status quo, retaining the quota system established in 1917, but it removed the ban against Asian immigration and recognized refugees as a special category of immigrants for the first time.

Summary of Event

The United States’ response to the immigration of foreign nationals underwent many changes during the twentieth century. In 1903, the commissioner of immigration asserted the need to assign officers to patrol the border with Mexico to prevent the illegal entry of Asians, mainly Chinese and Japanese. The Immigration Act Immigration Act (1917) of 1917, which virtually barred any immigration from Asian countries, required a literacy test for entry into the United States (although one could prove literacy in one’s native language). The literacy test and the eight-dollar “head tax” per entrant, however, were waived for Mexican laborers during World War I at the request of U.S. business interests. McCarran-Walter Act (1952)[Maccarran Walter Act]
Immigration and Nationality Act (1952)
Immigration;United States
[kw]McCarran-Walter Act (June 27, 1952)[Maccarran Walter Act]
[kw]Walter Act, McCarran- (June 27, 1952)[Walter Act, Maccarran]
[kw]Act, McCarran-Walter (June 27, 1952)[Act, Maccarran Walter]
McCarran-Walter Act (1952)[Maccarran Walter Act]
Immigration and Nationality Act (1952)
Immigration;United States
[g]North America;June 27, 1952: McCarran-Walter Act[03800]
[g]United States;June 27, 1952: McCarran-Walter Act[03800]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 27, 1952: McCarran-Walter Act[03800]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;June 27, 1952: McCarran-Walter Act[03800]
Arens, Richard
McCarran, Patrick Anthony
Walter, Francis Eugene

The Emergency Immigration Act Emergency Immigration Act (1921) of 1921 limited the number of immigrants to the United States from Europe to 350,000 per year, with separate limits on the number of persons who could enter from each nation. The National Origins Act National Origins Act (1924) of 1924, more popularly known as the Quota Law, reduced the number of immigrants from European countries to 150,000 and complicated the formula by which persons from different countries could qualify for entry. Much of the focus of the acts of 1921 and 1924 was on preserving the character of the United States as it was and on ensuring that the nation’s ethnic balance would remain tilted toward Northern Europeans; however, the number of immigrants who could enter from countries in the Western Hemisphere was not limited by either act.

The Great Depression and World War II caused government and the public to put immigration issues aside for a generation. It was not until the early 1950’s, at the height of the Cold War, that immigration again became the subject of intense national debate, and a movement arose to reform immigration law. At the time, there were more than two hundred federal laws dealing with immigration, with little coordination among them.

The movement toward immigration reform actually began in 1947, when a U.S. Senate committee investigated immigration laws, resulting in a voluminous report in 1950 and a proposed bill. The ensuing debate was divided between those who wanted to abandon the quota system and increase the number of immigrants admitted and those who hoped to shape immigration law to enforce the status quo. Leaders of the latter camp were the architects of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952: Patrick Anthony McCarran, senator from Nevada, Francis Eugene Walter, congressman from Pennsylvania, and Richard Arens, staff director of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Immigration and Naturalization Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Immigration and Naturalization .

McCarran was the author of the Internal Security Act Internal Security Act (1951) of 1951, which provided for registration of communist organizations and the internment of communists during national emergencies. Walter was an immigration specialist who had backed legislation to admit Europeans from camps for displaced persons. Arens had been staff director for the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Each looked upon immigration control as an extension of his work to defend the United States against foreign and domestic enemies.

McCarran was most outspoken in defending the concept of restrictions on the basis of national origin. Arens branded critics of the proposed act as either communists, misguided liberals enraptured by communist propaganda, apologists for specific immigrant groups, or “professional vote solicitors who fawn on nationality groups, appealing to them not as Americans but as hyphenated Americans.” Among the bill’s critics, however, were President Harry S. Truman Truman, Harry S.
[p]Truman, Harry S.;immigration policy and Hubert Humphrey, senator from Minnesota and future Democratic presidential nominee. One liberal senator, Herbert Lehman Lehman, Herbert , attacked the national origins provisions of the existing immigration code as a racist measure that smacked of the ethnic purity policies of the recently defeated German Nazis. Truman vetoed the bill, but his veto was overridden, 278 to 113 in the House and 57 to 26 in the Senate.

In several areas, the 1952 law made no significant changes: Quotas for European immigrants were little changed, no quotas were instituted for immigrants from North and South American countries, and the issue of illegal immigration was given scant attention. There were significant changes in some areas, however, including reversal of the ban on Asian immigration, extension of naturalization to persons regardless of race or sex, and the first provision for refugees as a special class of immigrants.

The Asiatic Barred Zone that had been established in 1917 was eliminated, and twenty-five hundred entries from the area were permitted per year. This was a minuscule number for the region, but it represented the first recognition of Asian immigration rights in decades. This small concession for Asians was offset partially by the fact that anyone whose ancestry was at least half Asian would be counted under the quota for the Asian country of ancestry, even if the person was a resident of another country. This provision, which was unlike the system of counting quotas for European countries, was specifically and openly designed to prevent Asians living in North and South American countries, which had no quota restrictions, from flooding into the United States.

The McCarran-Walter Act also ensured for the first time that 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.” Racial and ethnic discrimination;U.S. citizenship The provision of not denying citizenship based on sex addressed the issue of women Women;political and legal rights who had lost their U.S. citizenship by marrying foreign men of certain categories. Men who had married women from those categories had never lost their citizenship.

The issue of refugees was a new concern resulting from World War II. More than seven million persons had lost their homelands in the aftermath of the war as a result of the conquering and reorganization of countries, primarily in Eastern Europe. The 1952 act did not present a comprehensive solution to the problem of refugees, but it did give the attorney general the power, subject to congressional overview, to admit refugees into the United States under a special status. Although this was expected to be a seldom-used provision of the law, regular upheavals throughout the world later made it an important avenue of immigration into the United States.

Finally, the Immigration and Nationality Act also included stringent security procedures designed to prevent communist subversives from infiltrating the United States through immigration. Some of these harsh measures were specifically mentioned by Truman in his veto message, but the anticommunist Cold War climate made such measures hard to defeat.


Over the objections of Congress, President Truman appointed a special commission to examine immigration in September, 1952. After hearings in several cities, it issued the report Whom Shall We Welcome?, Whom Shall We Welcome? (government report) which was critical of the McCarran-Walter Act. Some liberal Democrats attempted to make the 1952 presidential election a forum on immigration policy, but without success. Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;immigration policy , the victorious Republican nominee for president, made few specific statements on immigration policy during the campaign. After his election, however, he proposed a special provision for allowing almost a quarter of a million refugees from communist nations to immigrate to the United States over a two-year period, couching his proposal in terms of humanitarianism and foreign policy.

The resulting Refugee Relief Act Refugee Relief Act (1953)
Refugees;U.S. immigration policy of 1953 allowed the admission of 214,000 refugees, but only if they had the assurance of jobs and housing or were close relatives of U.S. citizens and could pass extensive screening procedures designed to detect subversives. Several similar exceptions in the following years managed to undercut the harsher provisions of the McCarran-Walter Act, which its many critics had been unable to overturn outright. Still, by recognizing refugees as constituting a separate category of immigrants for the first time, the act arguably created the precedent that enabled it to be undercut, as refugees and diaspora became permanent aspects of the global situation in the second half of the twentieth century. McCarran-Walter Act (1952)[Maccarran Walter Act]
Immigration and Nationality Act (1952)
Immigration;United States

Further Reading

  • Dimmitt, Marius A. “The Enactment of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952.” Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1971. A Ph.D. dissertation giving a complete discussion of the 1952 immigration bill.
  • LeMay, Michael C. From Open Door to Dutch Door: An Analysis of U.S. Immigration Policy Since 1820. New York: Praeger, 1987. A comprehensive overview of the forces behind and results of changing U.S. immigration policy. Chapter 5 opens with a discussion of the Immigration Act of 1952. Bibliography and index.
  • _______, ed. The Gatekeepers: Comparative Immigration Policy. New York: Praeger, 1989. Compares immigration policy and politics in the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Israel, and Venezuela. Helpful in understanding overall immigration issues. Bibliography and index.
  • Reimers, David M. “Recent Immigration Policy: An Analysis.” In The Gateway: U.S. Immigration Issues and Policies, edited by Barry R. Chiswick. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1982. Discusses immigration policies and laws from the 1920’s through the 1970’s. Includes information on Senator Patrick McCarran’s role in immigration law.
  • Shanks, Cheryl. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1890-1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Survey of one hundred years of U.S. immigration law and policy, including a chapter on the McCarran-Walter Act. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Ybarra, Michael J. Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt. Hanover, N.H.: Steerforth Press, 2004. An extremely comprehensive examination of McCarran’s entire career through the lens of his anticommunist agenda. Places the McCarran-Walter Act in a Cold War context. Bibliographic references and index.

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