Presidents on Immigration – Past, Present, Future

    On this President’s Day, let us recall our long and storied past Presidential stances on immigration. The Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, which codified national citizenship policy for “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and of the State wherein they reside,” has allowed many immigrant children to live with rights for which their parents must win the “lottery” (quota system). Countless children I teach each day have the Fourteenth Amendment to thank for their status in Brownsville, Texas. President Andrew Johnson dragged his heels against this and all the other Civil Rights Bills, much to his Republican party’s dismay; however, the bills were passed and continue to stand as some of the most important immigration legislation today.

    The literacy test, which was first introduced in 1895 by Henry Cabot Lodge and which took twenty-two years to finally pass, was vetoed by a myriad of presidents such as Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and William Howard Taft. Cleveland’s reason for the veto was that the terrific growth of the United States up until 1897 was “largely due to the assimilation and thrift of millions of sturdy and patriotic adopted citizens” (Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277) He also declared that immigrants of the not-so-distant past were some of the nation’s best citizens. In his steadfast veto, Cleveland addresses the issue of citizenship requirements and ends with a conclusion that may be very insightful to our nation’s current preoccupation with national security and terrorism. Cleveland said,

It is infinitely more safe to admit a hundred thousand immigrants who, though unable to read and write, seek among us only a home and an opportunity to work than to admit one of those unruly agitators and enemies of governmental control who can not only read and write, but delights in arousing by unruly speech the illiterate and peacefully inclined to discontent and tumult” ( Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277).

Perhaps our country’s leadership could come up with smart background checks which do not discriminate so much on nationality but criminality and past employment.

    Taft’s relentless veto was based solely on the economic necessity for a large and constant immigrant base. His reasoning echoes the reasoning of the Bracero Program, worker visa programs, and short-term migrant labor initiatives. Taft’s rationale was that, “the natives are not willing to do the work which the aliens come over to do” ( Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277). The beauty of immigration is that few immigrant families stay in these entry-level positions – the steady influx of immigrants who are upwardly mobile is a dynamic, short-term phenomenon for new immigrant families.

    Woodrow Wilson, in 1915, spoke out on the ethical the cause of immigrants. His veto to the literacy test rested on the fact that the bill would reject new immigrants “unless they have already had one of the chief of the opportunities they seek, the opportunity of education” ( Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277). Again, this same argument holds true and needs to be taken up by so many groups opposed to a physical border wall. One step into a school on la frontera will reinforce the fact that so many immigrants come to these United States seeking a better education for their families. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), which has failed to pass in several bills both in 2006 and 2007, would ensure that all schoolchildren who are high-achievers in our nation’s classrooms would have the opportunity, regardless of income or citizenship, to study at institutions of higher education and apply themselves to becoming skilled workers. Had he lived another 93 years, Woodrow Wilson would be one of the staunchest advocates of the DREAM Act, which could have proved one of the most empowering and inspiring legislations of the second Bush administration.

    The literacy test passed in 1917, and was soon followed by Calvin Coolidge’s Immigration Act of 1924 which set the first nation-based quota system for all incoming immigrants (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 only applied to “sojourners” from the largest country in the world). This Act also marked the beginning of the first official Border Patrol.

    Arguably the last President to be extremely pro-immigrant died with a couple bullets in 1963. His dream was to revamp immigration legislation to “base admission on the immigrant’s possession of skills our country needs and on the humanitarian grounds of reuniting families” (John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants, 80). JFK firmly believed that the quota system was discriminatory at a time when Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement were also making strides toward a Civil Rights Bill. Kennedy goes on to write that,

The use of a national origins system is without basis in either logic or reason if neither satisfies a national need nor accomplishes an international purpose. In an age of interdependence [read “globalization”] any nation with such a system is an anachronism, for it discriminates among applicants for admission into the U.S. on the basis of accident of birth (John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants,75).

 

Had he lived longer than 46 years, perhaps the United States of America would not still have a quota system which permits only 24,000 people from any country to migrate to our land, regardless of whether their sending nation has a population of China’s 1.3 billion or Monaco’s 32,000.

    One of the last substantial pieces of immigration legislation was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). Signed by Ronald Reagan, this has since been decried as an act which only worsened problems and which amounted to scotch-free amnesty. While neither of these are the case, IRCA did not ultimately address the true problem. By treating the symptom of illegal immigrants rather than the immigration legislation which criminalized them, Reagan departed from Kennedy’s lead and opted for the easy, immediate solution. While IRCA did make a substantive difference in the lives of 2.7 million people, it did not address the real problem which finds our country with 12 million residents on the wrong side of current immigration laws.

    The final “immigration law” on the books is one which physically, socially, economically, and ethically affects our nation’s immigrants, citizens, and borderlands. The Secure Fence Act of 2006, supported by President Bush and, sadly, both Democratic candidates Obama and Clinton, paved the way for a 700-mile fence along our 2,000-mile southern border. This “secure fence” would reroute extralegal immigrants to the most dangerous desert sections of our border; it would be an affront to American immigrants past, present, and future; it would be a tremendous waste what some estimate to be $5 billion while border communities such as Brownsville and Hidalgo County continue to be the poorest in the nation; it would serve as a severe distraction from the necessity for comprehensive, compassionate immigration reform; it would strand extralegal residents on this side of the border; it would separate loved ones; it would cripple border economies which thrive on the influx of international business; it would destroy precious and rare ecosystems and wildlife which cannot be found anywhere else; and it would cause our young nation of immigrants to wall ourselves off from our neighbors and the globalizing world at large.

    Let’s pray that true immigration reform will come with the next Presidency. If protest is prayer in action, then please join your prayers with ours, put your feet to the street, and join the Border Ambassadors and concerned citizens in the March Against the Wall as we walk 120 miles from Roma to Brownsville, Texas, this March 8-16.

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6 Responses to “Presidents on Immigration – Past, Present, Future”

  1. Presidents on Immigration - Past, Present, Future - Smart Borders Blog « Says:

    […] Presidents on Immigration – Past, Present, Future – Smart Borders Blog Posted on February 18, 2008 by symsess This is a great post I found looking for information on President Kennedy’s book A Nation of Immigrants. I recently checked the book out from my local library and will provide some wonderful quotes soon. It is truly a wonderful book detailing how this country has not done a good job embracing it immigrant roots. Presidents on Immigration – Past, Present, Future – Smart Borders Blog […]

  2. symsess Says:

    Thanks so much for this post. I only just discovered this blog, but look forward to reading many wonderful things here.

  3. mpw160 Says:

    Symsess – I very much look forward to reading more comments from you. To the extent that we can make the plight of the immigrant and the borderlands real to all people, the need for immediate immigration reform will be an afterthought.

  4. mpw160 Says:

    The saddest part of reading A Nation of Immigrants is realizing that Kennedy’s dream still remains unrealized 40+ years later. The quota system JFK rails against has not been seriously altered since 1920. And although JFK was a proponent of meritocratic immigration policies, liberalized refugee and asylum seeker qualification, and increased family reunification policies, this still is yet to be seen.

    The United States, being one of the few countries without socialized medicine, could still realistically open its doors to a number of new immigrants per year. It all depends on the way we come to view people – as liabilities and wards of our care, or as JFK saw them, as assets, the latter being the proof of 232 years of American history.

  5. kielfharell Says:

    This is one of your best posts yet. Keep up the good work!

  6. John F Kennedy - “A Nation of Immigrants” « American Humanity Says:

    […] reading? Presidents on Immigration – Past, Present, Future – at Smart Borders Blog. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Presidents on Immigration – Past, Present, Future […]

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