Historic Lessons to Guide the Immigration Debate


Not even the U.S. Supreme Court could decide what this nation should do to get a grip on its immigration problems. The high court recently deadlocked 4-4 on the issue of whether President Obama’s executive order on immigration, which would have protected millions of undocumented people from being deported, was constitutional. Minus the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, the best the court could do was a tie, a split just like the rest of us.

It’s time to look back to a less partisan time when questioning how to control the flow of immigrants into this country was not met with an automatic cry of “Racist!”; a time when community leaders and political leaders were focused on what was best for America and its citizens. How about we take a lesson from the past?

In 1853, abolitionist and author Fredrick Douglas wrote of the disruptive dislocation immigrants caused American workers, especially those of color, saying, “The old employments by which we have heretofore gained our livelihood, are gradually, and it may be inevitably, passing into other hands.”

“Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived immigrant, whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place,” he wrote.

Francis Walker, an early president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote about immigration in June 1896, saying, “Charity begins at home; and while the people of the United States have gladly offered an asylum to millions upon millions of the distressed and unfortunate of other lands and climes, they have no right to carry their hospitality one step beyond the line where American institutions, the American rate of wages, the American standard of living, are brought into serious peril.”

I’m not sure, but I don’t think anyone called Douglas or Walker racist for their opinions on the impact of immigration. Clearly they were patriots.

In 1919, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else.” But he was clear that immigrants had responsibilities upon entering our country:

“Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag … We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language … and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”

In his first message to Congress in December 1923, President Calvin Coolidge said: “American institutions rest solely on good citizenship. 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.”

Even back in the Roaring ’20s there were calls to keep good track of who entered our country. “We should find additional safety in a law requiring the immediate registration of all aliens,” Coolidge told the nation in the first ever radio broadcast of a presidential address. “Those who do not want to be partakers of the American spirit ought not to settle in America,” he said.

The point here is, when you process today’s fraught debate about immigration remember that it’s all bathed in politics. Republicans want to appear law-and-order tough. Democrats want to appear compassionate and win over the someday votes of those here illegally. There’s no evidence that either side really wants an end to the immigration controversy that gives them guaranteed media time.

In looking back for definitive wisdom on the issue I could find no better quote than this one from 1915, again from Roosevelt:

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. … The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”

Look around. We are engaged in a never-ending squabble that decides nothing and overlooks what is truly best for the country. When do we get serious?

As it says on the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” But I say bring them to our land in an orderly and legal fashion. If they are dissatisfied with our rules they can choose to live somewhere else.

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net

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