Central Valley

House resolution commemorates 1958 Azorean Refugee Act

By Michael Doyle | McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — John F. Kennedy helped populate the San Joaquin Valley with Azoreans. Now, the Valley's lawmakers offer a belated thanks.

In a commemoration that's also a rich political lesson, six House members are honoring long-ago congressional efforts on behalf of Azoreans displaced by a 1950s volcano. The volcano subsided, but the consequences of Kennedy's efforts can still be felt today.

"We understand the 50th anniversary is an important milestone," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Tuesday.

Costa recently introduced a resolution commemorating the half-century-old Azorean Refugee Act. The legislation and its successors welcomed thousands of refugees fleeing the Capelhinos volcano, which boiled the island of Faial between September 1957 and October 1958.

"Everywhere within a four-mile radius the lava and ash spread fear and destruction," Kennedy declared on the Senate floor on June 30, 1958.

The new commemorative resolution, in turn, is the kind of symbolic shout-out that proliferates in a Congress highly attuned to ethnic voting blocs.

Costa and his Valley co-authors, Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, all represent sizable Portuguese-American constituencies. Costa himself had one grandfather who emigrated from Portugal in 1899, and another who came in 1904.

The three other Democratic co-sponsors come from Rhode Island and Massachusetts, which are likewise well-populated by Portuguese-Americans.

In a similar expression of all-politics-is-local, Fresno-area lawmakers whose districts include tens of thousands of Armenian-American constituents have long championed an Armenian genocide resolution. The Valley's politically vocal Hmong refugees convinced Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, to denounce the socialist Laotian government. The Valley's significant Sikh population persuaded former Rep. Gary Condit of Ceres to opine on internal Indian politics.

The 2000 census identified 1.1 million Portuguese-Americans living in the United States, including about 330,000 in California. Many are concentrated in certain regions, a trend that typically amplifies business and political clout. The new resolution, for instance, asserts that roughly half of the San Joaquin Valley's dairy farms by the 1970s were owned by Portuguese-Americans.

"There are still a lot of living immigrants who came as a result of that (1958) legislation," noted Nunes' chief of staff, Johnny Amaral, whose own grandparents and father immigrated from Faial.

Costa and his colleagues introduced the Azorean Refugee Act commemoration July 31. Costa and Nunes shortly thereafter departed for the Azores, a cluster of islands 900 miles west of Portugal, where they visited relatives and helped island residents commemorate the volcanic eruption.

"The eruption of the Capelhinos volcano led to a wave of Portuguese immigration that brought more than 175,000 Azoreans to the United States between 1960 and 1980," the resolution states.

The resolution glosses over some politically instructive details.

The initial moving force behind the Azorean Refugee Act was Sen. John O. Pastore, a Rhode Island Democrat who introduced the measure June 4, 1958. The legislation authorized 1,500 visas for Azoreans affected by the volcano.

Kennedy, a Massachusetts senator still two years away from his 1960 presidential bid, came on board three weeks later. So did others attentive to Portuguese-American voters.

"In the district which I represent in California are a great many families of Portuguese extraction," then-Rep. John McFall, a Democrat from Manteca, declared Aug. 22, 1958 House. "These people have earned the reputation as fine, hardworking, law-abiding citizens."

The 1958 political maneuvering took some familiar-sounding turns.

Other senators including New York Democrat Jacob Javits said they wanted "comprehensive" immigration legislation. Senate leaders, though, warned the Azorean refugee bill would die if anyone hijacked it as a vehicle for broader immigration reform.

"I know it is not an idle threat," a frustrated Javits declared, adding that "it should be made clear that far more inclusive immigration action in the interest of the United States is urgently required."

But in the kind of side deal that often lubricates legislation, lawmakers did add several thousand additional visas for Dutch nationals. The initially limited Azorean visa program then expanded in future years, until quotas were lifted altogether.