Calvin Coolidge’s Immigration Policy: Relevant Today?
In early July, Pew Research released a report on the election issues most concerning to the general public. Perhaps not surprisingly, the report showed a decided increase in concern about immigration compared to previous election years.
Such increases are likely spurred by talk of “building a wall,” the huge waves of migrants that Europe is currently struggling to assimilate, and the influence potential immigrants may have on terrorism.
But modern Americans are hardly the first ones who have grappled with such concerns. This fact is demonstrated by a speech President Calvin Coolidge gave in 1924 to a group of foreign born citizens.
In his speech, Coolidge recognized that America had become a great nation because of the many immigrants who had flocked to its borders seeking free land, eager to work hard to make a better future and become a part of a new nation. Unfortunately, time and circumstances had changed all that:
“But with the passing of the day of lands so cheap as to be well nigh free, we are coming to confront a new set of conditions. It has been found necessary to inquire whether under these new conditions we can be sure of finding employment for the diverse elements and enormous numbers of new immigrants that are offered to us. We are all agreed, whether we be Americans of the first or of the seventh generation on this soil, that it is not desirable to receive more immigrants than can reasonably be assured of bettering their condition by coming here. For the sake both of those who would come and more especially of those already here, it has been thought wise to avoid the danger of increasing our numbers too fast. It is not a reflection on any race or creed. We might not be able to support them if their numbers were too great. In such event, the first sufferers would be the most recent immigrants, unaccustomed to our life and language and industrial methods.”
Coolidge went on to explain a few reasons he believed were important to keep in mind on the issue of immigration.
America’s first and foremost obligation, Coolidge noted, is to those immigrants who already live on American soil – both those who have been here for centuries and those who have only just arrived. The reason for this? “They came to us with stout hearts and high hopes of bettering their estate. They have contributed much to making our country what it is.” As such, Coolidge implied, they have a right to “the full measure of benefits and advantages which our people have been privileged to enjoy.”
Secondly, Coolidge believed that working to instill peace and harmony within America’s own shores was one of the best ways to help other countries rid themselves of “ancient animosities” and “long established hostilities.” In leading by example, Coolidge explained, America “shall be doing the things that will best equip us, spiritually and materially, to give the most effective help toward relieving the suffering nations of the Old World.
Furthermore, Coolidge believed that encouraging America’s current immigrants to love their nation of origin, but assimilate into the culture of their chosen homeland would go a long way toward securing national and international welfare:
“It is my belief that those who live here and really want to help some other country, can best accomplish that result by making themselves truly and wholly American. I mean by that, giving their first allegiance to this country and always directing their actions in a course which will be first of all for the best interests of this country. They cannot help other nations by bringing old world race prejudices and race hatreds into action here. In fact, they can best help other countries by scrupulously avoiding any such motives. It can be taken for granted that we all wish to help Europe. We cannot secure that result by proposing or taking any action that would injure America. … We can be in a position to help only by unifying the American nation, building it up, making it strong, keeping it independent, using its inclination to help and its disinclination to injure.”
What do you think of Coolidge’s thoughts, particularly in an era in which many of us are wrestling with the same immigration issues? Is he profoundly prejudiced and self-centered when it comes to America, or does he offer some clarity in wading through the emotional immigration debate we currently find ourselves in?