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Professor Lenni Benson specializes in immigration law and political asylum and is nationally recognized in the field. In 2008 she was honored with other members of the Safe Passage Project[…]

New York Law Professor and immigration expert Lenni Benson praises Ted Kennedy for empowering a generation of immigrants by spearheading bipartisan political reforms.

Question: What were Ted Kennedy’s contributions to immigration reform?

Lenni Benson: Ted Kennedy is the lion, and when I heard of his death, even when I knew he was ill, I felt it strongly because he has been the moral leader in immigration policy. I haven't learned every single thing he ever did in immigration law. There was one lottery program that he created that somehow the Irish got a very high percentage of the visas when it was supposed to be neutral. But he quickly remedied that. We do have something called the Diversity Visa Lottery which is for low-sending countries—nations who don't send a lot of immigrants, [where] people have some education and/or some work experience can enter in a lottery and come to America.

I've met dozens and dozens of people who came from Africa and the former Eastern Soviet block who would never have had an opportunity to come but for Ted Kennedy's lottery. But his real legacy, I think, in immigration is that he was willing, as are many leaders in this field, to see that immigration is neither Democrat nor Republican.

He built bridges across party lines. John McCain is an example where, I'm sure Senator McCain would easily say he respected Ted Kennedy and immigration. He understood this is neither free-market or exploiting labor, that there is complexity of discussion, and he trained regions of very talented lawyers and non-lawyers and his staff on the judiciary committee and the subcommittee on immigration policy. They are in the Obama Administration, they are in labor unions, they are in state government; those people are continuing.

He created a wave of educated, sophisticated people who know that to talk about immigration, we need to have a quiet thoughtful, in-depth conversation and not just a political sound-bite war.

Recorded on: August 31, 2009