Immigration has been a hot button issue in the presidential campaign this year, on both sides of the aisle. Our country is confronting this issue with many of the same hopes and fears that have colored our discourse on immigration from the earliest days of the republic. How much control should the Federal Government have over those who enter our labor market from abroad? What impact does increased immigration have on low-skill American workers? Will a massive wave of new immigrants imperil our Anglo-American constitutional traditions? On Tuesday, 23 February, high school students from the Salisbury School in Connecticut will debate immigration here at Plymouth Notch. Previous generations confronted these questions just as we do. It is useful to explore past approaches to guide our consideration of these issues today.
In President Coolidge’s time large-scale immigration was a fact of life, although the immigrants of that era were not primarily of Latin American extraction. Huge numbers of people from south and east Europe migrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the period largely covering Coolidge’s childhood and early political career up to his 1923 accession to the presidency. These new Americans often spoke languages (such as Russian and Italian) and practiced religions (such as Catholicism and Judaism) previously unfamiliar to native-born Americans. This large new influx of immigrants discomfited most Americans already present, and led to a succession of restrictionist laws, culminating in the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which President Coolidge signed into law on 24 May 1924. In Congress majorities too strong for a president to override supported the act. When he did so he deplored especially the exclusion of Japanese immigrants the Act contained, saying “If the exclusion provision stood alone I should disapprove it.”
Johnson-Reed is one of the strictest immigration laws ever enacted in American history. The law reflected the isolationist mood of the time. Provisions halting most immigration from east Europe were intended to stanch the proliferation of communist and dictatorial ideas. Americans on both sides of the aisle lamented the purportedly negative effect large scale immigration had on wages and job competition. Johnson-Reed favored Northern Europe. The act limited immigration to two percent of a foreign country’s nationals present in the United States in 1890. Since most of the immigration prior to that year had come from the nations of north and west Europe, many of the new citizens would have the same background.
Despite putting his pen to this restrictive law, President Coolidge did not harbor the prejudices and racist attitudes that so often color discussions of migration policy. In his 1926 speech at the dedication of the statue of John Ericsson, the Swede who pioneered the technology for the Monitor class of ships that helped America win the Civil War, he said “…when once our feet have touched this soil, when once we have made this land our home, wherever our place of birth, whatever our race, we are all blended in one common country. All artificial distinctions of lineage and rank are cast aside. We all rejoice in the title of Americans.” At the 1925 American Legion convention in Omaha, Nebraska Coolidge said “Whether one traces his Americanism back three centuries to the Mayflower, or three years of the steerage, is not half so important as whether his Americanism of to-day is real and genuine. No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat.”
President Coolidge was a principled believer in immigration controls, as he noted in his 1923 State of the Union message: “New arrivals should be limited to our capacity to absorb them into the ranks of good citizenship. America must be kept American. For this purpose, it is necessary to continue a policy of restricted immigration.” Succeeding presidents and Congresses did not change the policy when they held office. It was only well after the Second World War that both parties began to focus on the gifts, both economic and social, that immigrants bring to America. Today, the democratic process will sort out how America proceeds vis-a-vis immigration policy, but we can draw lessons from the past as we decide which path to take. What we can agree on, however, is the fact that, no matter how long or deep one’s ties to this country, each member of the American family has valuable gifts to contribute to our society that should be welcomed and cultivated to the fullest extent possible.
Rushad L. Thomas is the program and editorial associate at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.