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Presidential Papers Historical Series: Special Message to the Congress on Immigration Matters

by Dwight D. Eisenhower: 1953-1961

February 8, 1956

To the Congress of the United States:

            Throughout our history immigration to this land has contributed greatly to the strength and character of our Republic. Over the years we have provided for such immigration because it has been to our own national interest that we do so. It is no less to our national interest that we do so under laws that operate equitably.

The Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization have made a thorough study of the operation of our present immigration laws, and have advised me concerning the changes and additions which they consider necessary in the national interest. I have carefully reviewed their findings and concur in their conclusions. The recommendations now made are based on those findings and conclusions.

This Message takes up four separate and distinct subject matters respecting our immigration policies: (1) the quota system and the use of national origins, (2) the private-relief-bill system of handling hardship cases, (3) unnecessary restrictions and administrative provisions of our immigration laws, and (4) judicial review in deportation. Each such subject matter is treated separately because the problems in each are wholly distinct from the others. Accordingly, the recommendations as to each subject matter will, I hope, be considered separately and each on its own merit.


The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 was developed essentially as a codification of many separate, and sometimes overlapping and inconsistent, immigration and nationality laws. It was thought inappropriate, in connection with that legislation, to revise our basic immigration policies. Moreover, at that time 1950 census information was incomplete.

The time has now come to consider those policies. Experience in the post-war world demonstrates that the present national-origins method of admitting aliens needs to be re-examined, and a new system adopted which will admit aliens within allowable numbers according to new guidelines and standards.

The Congress has traditionally formulated our basic immigration policies, and will doubtless wish to make its decision as to what new system should be established only after its own study and investigation of all possible choices. There are many factors that must be taken into consideration. Among these are: the needs of this country for persons having specialized skills or cultural accomplishments; close family relationships; the populations and immigration policies of countries sending immigrants to this country; their past immigration and trade relationships with this country; and their assistance to the joint defense of the friendly free nations of the world.

Pending the completion by the Congress of such study and investigation, it is essential that we take interim measures to alleviate as much as possible inequities in the present quota system. Accordingly, I recommend the immediate enactment of the following proposals.

First, the present quota system sets a maximum annual authorization of 154,657 quota immigrants. This figure is derived from a formula based upon the 1920 population. I recommend that total population as shown by the 1950 census be used as the base for determining the overall ceiling. I believe that economic growth over the past thirty years and present economic conditions justify an increase of approximately 65,000 in quota numbers. I recommend that Congress provide for such an increase by fixing the overall ceiling in terms of a percentage of total population as shown by the 1950 census. The new ceiling recommended would be approximately 220,000 quota numbers annually.

In order to eliminate some of the inequity resulting from the fact that several countries have large quotas which they do not use while others have small quotas which are usually oversubscribed, I recommend that the additional quota numbers--i. e. those over and above the 154,657 numbers now provided for--be distributed among countries in proportion to their actual immigration to this country since the establishment of the quota system in 1924.

This method of allocation will help to alleviate the problem of oversubscribed quotas. At the same time no country will have a lesser number of quota numbers allocated to it than at present.

Second, I recommend that the Congress set aside from the increased annual quota 5,000 numbers to be available for admission of aliens without regard to nationality or national origin. Use of these numbers would enable us to meet some of the needs of this country which develop from time to time for persons with special skills and cultural or technical qualifications.

The existing immigration law recognizes somewhat similar criteria for quota immigrants by giving a preference to those whose services are determined by the Attorney General to be needed urgently in the United States because of the high education, technical training, specialized experience, or exceptional ability--and to be substantially beneficial prospectively to the national economy, cultural interests, or welfare of the United States. Our needs and requirements should be determined on the basis of consultation among the various departments and agencies of the Government, and also with the advice and testimony of private organizations.

This special pool has further value as an experimental plan departing entirely from our present system of distributing quotas on a basis of nationality or place of birth. It also would enable us to give greater assistance to persons abroad who have undergone suffering and hardship resisting Communist aggression, who would make beneficial contributions to this country, and who will not have the benefit of the Refugee Relief Act after that Act's termination.

Third, quota numbers that are unused by countries to which they are allocated should be made available for use elsewhere. Under our present law quota numbers which are unused by any particular country in the year in which they are available become void and may not be used by any other country.

I recommend enactment of legislation that will permit the utilization of unused quota numbers in the succeeding year. This should be done by pooling the unused quota numbers in each of the following areas: Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific ocean area. These pooled quota numbers would then be distributed during a twelve-month period on a first come, first served basis among eligible applicants of the area, without regard to country of birth within the area. These quotas should be limited to aliens who qualify for preference status under existing law--persons having special skills or close relatives in the United States.

There is a further inequity in the quota system by virtue of the so-called mortgage on quotas resulting from the issuance of visas under the Displaced Persons Act and other special acts. The law provides that visas issued under these acts are chargeable against quotas authorized under the Immigration Act. The result is that the quotas of many countries are mortgaged far into the future. For example, fifty percent of the quota for Greece is mortgaged until the year 2017; for Lithuania, until 2090; for Latvia, until 2274. The total number so mortgaged for the year 1955 amounted to about 8,000, and over the total span of years the aggregate could be as much as 328,000. I recommend the elimination of this unfairness. This is consistent with the action of the Congress in enacting the Refugee Relief Act of 1953. Congress did not then impose additional mortgages on quotas but provided special non-quota visas for eligible refugees.


For some time I have considered that undue and largely useless burdens are placed upon the Congress and the President by the avalanche in recent years of private bills for the relief of aliens. The number of these bills is strikingly high in comparison with the number of public enactments. In the First Session of the Eighty-Fourth Congress private immigration enactments alone accounted for 413 of 880 enactments, public and private; 3,059 such bills were introduced. During the Eighty-Third Congress, private immigration enactments accounted for 753 of 1,788 enactments, both public and private; 4,797 such bills were introduced. At the beginning of the present Session, there were 2,159 private immigration measures pending.

The Congress, in the performance of its constitutional duties, must consider the worthiness of each private immigration bill introduced. The President, in the performance of his constitutional duties, must consider the worthiness of each bill enacted. The Nation's interest would surely be better served if the bulk of these private immigration claims were handled through suitable administrative machinery and if the Congress and the Executive could thus give their full attention to more urgent national problems.

Under the private bill system of handling individual immigration cases, many persons fail to obtain the very relief which others have received, because Congress has not had the time to take up and act on the bills introduced for their benefit. Indeed there are many whose plight has not even come to the attention of the Congress.

For these reasons it is my belief that action is called for to provide the necessary administrative authority to take care of such cases. I hope that such action will be taken without delay so that it may be of help this year. The enactment of such authority, in my opinion, would substantially eliminate the need for private legislative redress in this area. I suggest that there should be vested in the Attorney General limited discretionary powers to grant relief with respect to admission and deportation of aliens. Such discretion should be limited to aliens with close relatives in this country, to veterans, and to functionaries of religious organizations, regardless of the technical statutory ground on which the alien is inadmissible or subject to deportation. These classes of cases embrace the great bulk of the hardship cases which appeal to our sense of fairness. However, no relief ought to be accorded aliens whose presence here would be dangerous to the safety and security of the United States. An appropriate charge against the applicable quota would be made in each case where relief is granted.

It should further be provided by the Congress that there shall be a ceiling on the number of cases in which such discretionary authority may be exercised.


Experience under the existing immigration law has established that there are a number of changes, aside from the quota provisions, which should be made in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Some provisions create unnecessary restrictions upon travel to the United States, while others inflict great hardships upon the aliens affected. Consequently, I make the following recommendations:

Under the present law, every alien applying for a visa must be fingerprinted; and every alien admitted without a visa and remaining in the United States for thirty days or longer, even if here temporarily, must be fingerprinted. Although in our minds no stigma is attached to fingerprinting, it is not a requirement of travel in other countries. We should be the first to remove travel obstacles which hamper the free exchange of ideas, cultures and commerce. Further, experience over the last three years has shown that this requirement does not significantly contribute to our national safety and security. The law should be amended to permit the Secretary of State and the Attorney General to waive the requirement of fingerprinting, on a reciprocal basis, for aliens coming here for temporary periods.

We must recognize the tremendous increase in air and surface travel in recent years. Aliens traveling from one country to another often find it necessary to pass through the United States without any intention to remain in or even visit this country. A South American flying to or returning from Europe, for example, will often pass through the United States. He should not be required to meet all of the standards for admission, coupled with inspection and examination, that normally apply. These requirements result in unnecessary hardships to the traveler, expense to the carrier, and loss of good will, without proportionate benefit to the United States. The law should be amended accordingly.

The present statute contains a restrictive requirement which makes it necessary for immigration authorities to inspect and apply all grounds of exclusion to aliens seeking admission to the mainland of the United States from Alaska and Hawaii. This requirement results in expense to the Government and causes delays and inconvenience in travel. It must be remembered that, by definition in the law, these Territories are part of the United States, and aliens who have entered or are present in them are subject to all the provisions of the Act. If the alien was deportable before he came to the mainland, he remains deportable. I recommend the elimination from the law of this unnecessary restriction upon travel.

The immigration laws presently require aliens to specify race and ethnic classification in visa applications. These provisions are unnecessary and should be repealed.

A large group of refugees in this country obtained visas by the use of false identities in order to escape forcible repatriation behind the Iron Curtain; the number may run into the thousands. Under existing law such falsification is a mandatory ground for deportation. The law should be amended to give relief to these unfortunate people.

The inequitable provisions relating to Asian spouses and adopted children should be repealed.

The Immigration Act grants special naturalization benefits to veterans of our Armed Forces who have completed at least three years' honorable service and who can submit proof of admission for permanent residence. Many have been unable to submit this proof. I recommend that proof of admission be not required in such cases.

The present statute is unnecessarily restrictive as to aliens who marry United States citizens. It forbids adjustment to permanent residence if the alien has been in the United States less than one year before the marriage. This disrupts the family and is expensive for the alien who must go abroad to obtain a nonquota visa, without proportionate benefit to the United States. I recommend that the requirement of one year's presence in the United States before marriage be repealed.

The above covers the principal changes which I recommend as a minimum toward amelioration of the immigration laws. Others will be suggested by the Attorney General.


Just as the Nation's interests call for a larger degree of flexibility in the laws for regulating the flow of other peoples to our shores, there is at the same time a significant need to strengthen the laws established for the wholesome purpose of ridding the country of the relatively few aliens who have demonstrated their unfitness to remain in our midst. Some of these persons have been found to be criminals of the lowest character, trafficking in murder, narcotics, and subversion. Constitutional due process wisely confers upon any alien, whatever the charge, the right to challenge in the courts the Government's finding of deportability. However, no alien who has once had his day in court, with full rights of appeal to the higher courts, should be permitted to block his removal and cause unnecessary expense to the Government by further judicial appeals the only purpose of which is delay. I am concerned by the growing frequency of such cases involving as they often do the depraved and confirmed criminal. Accordingly, I have asked the Attorney General to submit to the Congress, a legislative proposal that will remedy this abuse of legal process.

I believe that these changes in our immigration and nationality laws, together with the amendments to the Refugee Relief Act which I have heretofore recommended to the Congress, not only will advance our own self-interest, but also will serve as living demonstrations that we recognize our responsibilities of world leadership. I urge their careful consideration by the Congress.

Reprinted with permission from John Wolley and Gerhard Peters of the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara at the American Presidency Project.

About The Author

This is part of the presidential paper historical series featuring past presidential public papers related to immigration law. The papers of our past Presidents show the impact of immigration law in American history. We thank the efforts of the American Presidency Project who have gathered these important archival documents.

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