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Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Legacy to Indian American Immigrants

India-West, News Report , Richard Springer Posted: Sep 05, 2009

Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy’s death from brain cancer Aug. 25 at the age of 77, while not unanticipated, sent a ripple of sadness through the Indian American community, which benefited enormously from his fervent advocacy for even-handed expansion of legal immigration to the United States.

The fact that there are now more than 2.5 million Indian Americans in this country can be traced directly back to Kennedy’s championing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished national-origin quotas existing since 1924 that favored white Europeans, and opened the door for million of Asians to immigrate to the United States.

Since Kennedy was first elected to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 1962, he was characterized by his compassionate lawmaking, working for health care benefits and other social programs for the disadvantaged.

Kennedy led the battle for the Refugee Act of 1980, which ensured humanitarian protections to refugees in overseas camps; and was the chief sponsor of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which led to the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.

On the international arena, he was one of the first U.S. political figures to publicize the plight of Bangladeshi refugees fleeing brutalities inflicted by the Pakistani Army during a visit to West Bengal and other areas of east India in 1971.

In a 1995 interview with India-West at a 1995 fundraiser at the home of businessman A.J. Patel in Fremont, Calif., Kennedy vehemently opposed any sale of sophisticated weaponry to Pakistan against the dictates of the Pressler Amendment and reiterated his firm belief that immigration in general, and Indian American immigrants in particular, have been a boon to the United States.

“I feel very sad, for I know that Senator Kennedy was a champion of immigration reforms that opened the door for many of us to come to America,” Rajen Anand, executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, told India-West.

“He was the voice of the poorest of poor people who had no voice. He was at the forefront of providing health care to every American. His absence from the Senate will make it difficult to pass a comprehensive health care bill,” Anand said. “It is a sad day for America and his void will not be easy to overcome.”

U.S. Ambassador to India Timothy J. Roemer called Kennedy an “American hero and a friend of India,” adding that Kennedy championed the poor’s cause “with a lion’s courage and tenacity.”

Karen K. Narasaki, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, said in a statement that even while Kennedy was battling brain cancer (for the past year), “he never stopped fighting for others. Earlier this year, Kennedy was key to passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restored the right of employees to challenge wage discrimination and which was the first law President Obama signed. He was in the middle of trying to get long sought hate crimes legislation and immigration reform enacted.”

Kennedy, however, was not always on the side of India. For example, in 2006 he said he had “severe reservations,” on non-proliferation grounds, on the U.S.-India nuclear deal.

Ramesh Kapur of Boston, a former treasurer of the Democratic Party and a fundraiser in Kennedy’s early Senate campaigns, told PTI that Kennedy was the “unsung hero of Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal.”

“Had he lobbied against the civilian nuclear deal as was done by Congressman Edward Markey, it would have been very tough for us to get the bill through the Congress, given the support he enjoyed on both sides of the aisle in the Congress.”

Kapur said Kennedy promised to reverse his vote in the Senate after the Nuclear Suppliers Group approved the deal, but became very ill and could not vote when the bill came before the Senate for final approval late last year.

Even on immigration issues, Kennedy could be a tough negotiator, Inder Singh, chairman of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin, recalled to India-West.

“I had (an) interaction with (Kennedy) when he introduced an immigration bill in 1986 to reduce the quota of the then 2nd (spouses and unmarried children of legal permanent residents) and 5th preference (immigrant investors creating employment) categories…The immigrant communities relentlessly pursued with him and his office, and brought lot of pressure from Indian and other immigrant communities,” Singh said.

“I was involved in that campaign very actively on behalf of NFIA. He eventually yielded and agreed to keep the 2nd and 5th preference categories quota intact in the 1990 bill that was enacted into law. It was a tough act as many Democrat senators and Congressmen had tremendous regard for him and did not want to openly oppose his bill which was introduced three times in 1986, 1988 and 1990.”

In a statement, U.S.-India Political Action Committee chairman Sanjay Puri summed it up best: “With the death of this truly great American, a chapter has come to an end. But he leaves behind a legacy which will be hard to match. Even if you disagreed with him on an issue, you could never question his commitment to this country and for providing an opportunity for the American dream to every American.”

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