The Associated Press
BOSTON (AP) - Before 1965, Leticia Hermosa had little chance of crossing the Pacific to the U.S. from the Philippines. Hermosa, a nurse, and others like her just couldn't get through the strict U.S. immigration quota system, which favored Western Europeans and essentially excluded those from Asia and Latin America.
But after Sen. Edward Kennedy pushed through the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the door opened for her to immigrate in 1973 to Boston, where she eventually finished school, got a law degree and became a U.S. citizen.
On Thursday, Hermosa stood in line with thousands of others at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum to pay her respects to the late senator. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today," said the 55-year-old Hermosa, who now lives in Westwood, Mass.
As the nation mourns Kennedy, who died this week of a brain tumor at age 77, historians and immigrant advocates are remembering the senator - perhaps more than any other - as championing legislation that directly benefited immigrants, their children and their grandchildren. The 1965 law that he sponsored fundamentally changed the demographics of the country and transformed many urban enclaves into majority-minority cities.
But they say Kennedy also remained a "point man" in the Senate for immigrant advocates and minorities throughout his career, even supporting recent proposals to overhaul immigration laws aimed at undocumented workers.
"Sen. Kennedy was always committed to us and also tried to do what he could on our behalf," said Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of the California-based United Farm Workers, a group co-founded by the late Cesar Chavez.
Kennedy advocated for the children of immigrants and minorities by pushing legislation on voting rights and health care for uninsured children, Rodriguez said.
Tatcho Mindiola, the director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston, said Kennedy remained an ally for immigrants and minorities, even though Massachusetts didn't have a sizable Latino or Asian population.
"He had no constituency he was trying to serve, other than what he saw was fair and just," Mindiola said.
Ignacio M. Garcia, author of "Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans in search of Camelot" and a history professor at Utah's Brigham Young University, said Kennedy developed strong ties with advocates during his brother's 1960 presidential campaign.
While campaigning as the point person for "Viva Kennedy" clubs in the American Southwest, the youngest Kennedy brother saw firsthand the effects of Latino segregation, Garcia said.
"He established relationships even before his brothers did, and in a more direct way," Garcia said. "John F. Kennedy would disappoint, Robert Kennedy never really got the chance, but Ted would become the go-to guy."
William Bonilla, 79, a lawyer in Corpus Christi, Texas, and former national president for the League of United Latin American Citizens, said that whenever Latino groups invited Kennedy to speak, the room was packed.
"He spoke more for us than our own senators we elected from Texas," Bonilla said.
Political observers say Kennedy's most lasting legacy may be the rarely mentioned 1965 immigration law. Before its passage, a national origins quota system was in place to mirror the largely white-ancestral makeup of the U.S.
Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez, D-Texas, whose late father, Henry, served in Congress and worked with Kennedy on the legislation, said the bill would not have passed without Kennedy.
"He was huge and instrumental," Gonzalez said. "There's no way you can describe the importance of his involvement. He put all of his talents to make it work."
In 1965, the U.S. was around 85 percent white, according to various estimates. Today, a third of the country is minority, and nonwhites are on track to become the majority sometime in the 2040s.
Minority populations have grown by leaps and bounds because of high birth rates among those first generations of immigrants and a steady flow from Latin America, Asian and Africa since.
Some political observers even credit the election of President Barack Obama to the political maturation of those populations.
Syndicated editorial cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz said Kennedy's death has "reawakened" interests in Kennedy among the children and grandchildren of immigrants. He said that when his wife, Victoria Landeros-Lopez, heard of Kennedy's passing, she pulled out an old "Viva Kennedy" button her mother wore during the 1960 campaign.
That gave Alcaraz the idea this week to draw a cartoon of a young Sen. Kennedy with the old 1960 slogan underneath.
"When my wife left to take the kids to the orthodontist, I kissed her and said 'Viva Kennedy,'" Alcaraz said. "She just looked at me and said back, 'Viva Kennedy'."