Sheepherding is the world’s second oldest profession according to Genesis.
“Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.”
Then Cain killed Abel and received the mark, and his brother became the good shepherd whose namesake appeared a million times thereafter in scripture, mythology, nursery rhymes, literature, film, and economics. But it was not until the legislative maneuvers of U.S. Senator Patrick McCarran that Basque sheepherders, who followed Abel in his profession, ignited a fracas in American politics.
Senator McCarran of Nevada presided as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 1948 when millions worldwide lacked food and shelter, and yearned for a life of peace, economic security, and hope. They eyed America as their promised land. It was McCarran who determined if they could walk through those “golden doors” which the poet Emma Lazarus had written about in the “New Colossus” sixty-five years earlier.
At age 71, McCarran was a dour man with wavy silver hair, fleshy jowls, and a piercing squint. By seniority, he stood fourth in the Senate, though some of his colleagues whispered near the cloak room that he was first in power, and no one dared say otherwise.
Although he represented only 140,000 souls spread mostly in the rural countryside of Northern Nevada where sheep outnumbered people, he wielded nearly exclusive authority over America’s immigration laws. One of his earliest bills, the Displaced Person’s Act, granted residency to 200,000 refugees from Germany, Austria, Italy, and Czechoslovakia.
Less than a year after Truman had signed the bill, McCarran quietly pushed through a one-page amendment to grant residency to 48 Basque sheepherders. It went largely unnoticed. The request had come from ranchers in Nevada, Idaho, and California. Herds were shrinking; wool production was down. Ranchers believed that the able hands of “sturdy Basque sheepherders” could help staunch the decline of herds from a peak of 705,000 in 1935 to 321,000 in 1948.
Heartened by this success, McCarran put forward a bolder bill two months later that admitted 250 Basque sheepherders from Spain. “Unless skilled and competent sheepherders are promptly made available,” he said, “it will be necessary for the herds to be progressively reduced.”
But this bill did not go unnoticed, not because his fellow senators doubted the skill of Basques as shepherds, or because the country could not absorb 250 hard working men. They balked because more than a year had gone by and McCarran’s Displaced Person’s Act had restricted, not assisted, refugees into America. Some of his senate brethren suspected that he had poisoned the act on purpose with labyrinthine regulations to reduce the flow of refugees to a trickle, if not a drip. Until McCarran loosened the restrictions, his colleagues planned to delay his shepherd bill.
There was merit and a twist of irony to their suspicions. The war had been replaced in America with a fear of foreign and domestic communism, the great Red Menace. McCarran had become one of the most ardent crusaders, along with Joseph McCarthy, against allegedly ubiquitous communist sympathizers hiding among immigrant populations or lurking in the diplomatic corps of the State Department. He fancied himself always vigilant of communists and communist sympathizers. Yet as much as he tossed up roadblocks to the foreign born or launched witch hunts for men and women of questionable character, he ironically made special accommodations for Basque sheepherders born in a country ruled by a Fascist.
When challenged, he simply retorted that “communism is worse than fascism.” Even if Franco’s regime had purged thousands of Basque and other opponents after the Spanish Civil War, McCarran saw Spain as an ally against the Soviet Union. Moreover, cordial relations with Franco ensured a constant flow of Basque sheepherders for the ranchers of his state. “I am nothing without serving Nevadans,” he said.
In September 1949, he decided to investigate the refugee camps in Europe and evaluate for himself (some would say validate) the extent of communist influence. “Since I am defending the economy of the country,” he said, “I want to find out how many of these people should come in and why. I want to find out what they’ll do once they get here.” He also stopped in Madrid to visit Franco.
After his return, McCarran did not loosen the restrictions on refugees, but he did back a $100 million loan to Spain, and even threatened the Secretary of State with a budget cut unless the department warmed diplomatic relations with the fascist country. “Until that policy is changed,” he said, “I’m going to look into this appropriation with a fine-tooth comb.”
All the while, his shepherd bill languished and the ranchers of Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, and California pressed him for action. Not until the summer of 1950 was he able to craft a compromise. He agreed to loosen restrictions on refugees if his colleagues accepted the 250 Basque sheepherders, and in a second measure, granted legal residence to 163 Basque sheepherders who had arrived in the United States between 1943 and 1949. The deal was struck, the House concurred, and President Truman signed both bills.
This matter had hardly settled when McCarran decided to rewrite America’s immigration laws. “Today, as never before,” he said, “untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain.” He warned that America’s porous borders and weak immigration policies had allowed 5,000,000 illegal aliens into the United States including “militant communists, Sicilian bandits, and other criminals.” Although he offered no proof of this claim, his fiery speeches riled the public and stoked fears inside and outside of government. “We have in the United States today,” he said, “hard core indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary, are its deadly enemy.” He joined with Congressman Francis Walter of Pennsylvania to introduce the McCarran-Walter Act.
The bill was an overhaul of America’s immigration policies. It retained a quota system for nationalities and regions and codified a system that gave preference to different ethnic groups based largely on labor qualifications. It defined three types of immigrants: immigrants with special skills; average immigrants, governed by quotas, not to exceed 270,000 per year; and refugees. Every immigrant had to be of “good moral character,” which prevented entry of anyone with ties or affiliations to “communist or other subversive parties.” The bill eventually passed, though drawing a veto from President Truman, which was quickly overridden. The bill became law on June 27, 1952. Many of its provisions remain intact today.
Under the new law, the once paralyzing scrutiny of refugees expanded to all immigrants. Basque sheepherders were considered immigrants with special skills, giving them preference over average immigrants. That they hailed from a fascist country no longer mattered. In fact, by cooperating with Franco’s government, McCarran was able to open a special immigration office in Bilbao to expedite the flow of Basque sheepherders from the Pyrenees to America. McCarran pressed the State Department to admit the annual quota of 250 Basque sheepherders immediately and another 250 in 1953.
With ranchers in Nevada and other western states rejoicing, he proposed legislation in 1954 to bring in another 385 Basque sheepherders which exceeded the quota in his own law. He declared wool production “essential to national security” and the work of Basque men vital for the preservation of America’s economic vitality in the world. He was riding so high that even Franco decorated him in Spain with the Grand Cross of Isabel Catolica, a rare honor for a foreigner.
Many senators did not share Franco’s admiration for McCarran, one in particular, Senator Herbert Lehman of New York, who blocked the bill. “This bill,” he said, “is for the benefit of one small group and one region of our country.” He sympathized with the need for sheepherders, he said, but “what about the American citizens who have mothers and fathers, grandparents, brothers and sisters, foster-parents or foster children in Italy, Greece, Norway, Portugal, Turkey, Hungary and Czechoslovakia? Are they not deserving of the same consideration as the sheep of Nevada?”
Restrictions on refugees had tangled into such a draconian noose, Lehman maintained, that more Basque sheepherders had entered America in the past five years than “all refugees, escapees, persecutees, orphans, and surplus population in Europe and Asia.” The claim was an exaggeration, but not by much. He then questioned McCarran directly, asking, “Would you raise your voice in behalf of special bills to admit some Swiss watchmakers, some Czech tailors, some Greek goat herders, some Italian farmers, and some Polish boot-makers in a non-quota status?”
Whether rhetorical or not, the question went unanswered.
The bill seemed doomed. Yet a day after blocking it and posing his question, Lehman lifted his opposition and voted for the measure. He gave no explanation, nor did the congressional record provide insight to his change of heart. Whatever argument, promise, swap, threat or special deal caused Lehman to flip his vote will likely stay buried in history. The bill passed and became law.
By 1954, McCarran had opened America to 1,135 Basque sheepherders. No other group of immigrants enjoyed such preferential treatment, or expeditious attention. If a Basque sheepherder in the Pyrenees applied for a visa, he received an interview at the American consulate, a physical, and a plane ticket. Within a month, he found himself with a dog at his side and a willow in his hand herding a band of 1,000 sheep in Nevada or another western state, sleeping by a campfire, and eating beans from a can.
The pace of Basque immigration would never be greater than during these controversial years, though the Basque would continue to settle western states during the rest of the decade and well into the 1960s.
In September 1954, not long after McCarran had won passage of his last shepherd bill and prepared another for 1955, he returned to Nevada to campaign for fellow Democrats. He left Reno in the early afternoon for a speech in Hawthorne. He stopped in Fallon for a haircut, but finding a line at the barber shop, and not wanting to be late, he paid a man so he could jump ahead. In Hawthorne, he gave his speech to rousing applause, and then, leaving the stage, he collapsed. McCarran had suffered his third heart attack in three years.
He left his mark on the state: an airport in Las Vegas, a boulevard in Reno. The good shepherds continued to thrive after him. Some worked for the rest of their lives in the sheep camps during spring and summer and lived solitary lives in nearby towns during the off-seasons. Others moved to town permanently, worked 9-to-5 jobs, raised families, and returned to the sheep camps only for a weekend to hear the bleats of lambs, or help deliver or dock or sheer.
After two generations, many of the 57,000 Basque who now populate America can trace their origins to these early sheepherders who left the Pyrenees for America’s western states. Today in the hills of Nevada or Idaho or California, a few Basque men still tend flocks like Abel before them. To see them work is to witness an ancient craft that is simple, wonderful and older than scripture.