by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
“IMMIGRATION restrictionist = racist.” “Restrictionist nation = racist nation.” These are the basic equations animating the opponents of President-elect Donald Trump’s call to restrict illegal immigration.
But I write this after the Liberation. The liberation, that is, of the country from preelection assumptions, logic and linkages. Immigration is a case in point. Immigration restrictions slow economies, but they don’t necessarily prove or portend bigotry or racism. Indeed, it’s possible for an American government to restrict immigration and foster national comity at the same time. That’s what Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge demonstrated in the 1920s.
The story of that era’s immigration policy commences with World War I. President Woodrow Wilson and American voters worried that revolutionaries from abroad would import revolution to our shores. U.S. troops returned home from Europe informed and angry. When a general strike paralyzed Seattle, Mayor Ole Hanson feared that what was happening in Petrograd might be happening on Seattle’s waterfront. The rumbling from the war of independence in Ireland was so powerful its reverberations could be felt in the cobblestones of Boston.
Today similar concerns surface. ISIS worries voters, as do al Qaeda and any other extremist groups that might inspire revolution or violence. When it comes to our porous border with Mexico, the erosion of the rule of law also troubles American citizens. Heavy, curricular multiculturalism leaves too little space for the teaching and absorption of common law and U.S. history. …
… [Woodrow] Wilson was too rough. So were some of the features of those laws. But the Harding and Coolidge administrations went out of their way to let immigrants who were here know they were welcome–officially. As Coolidge said in 1925: “Whether one traces his Americanism back three centuries to the Mayflower, or three years to steerage, is not half so important as whether his Americanism of today is real and genuine. No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat.” To signal respect Coolidge also declared the Statue of Liberty a national moment.
What Harding and Coolidge sought was respect for the rule of law. They wanted a breathing space for all the immigrants to assimilate, time for them to learn English and what people in those days called “Americanism.” By Americanism they meant a familiarity with common law, U.S. civics and adequate workplace English.