Debates about immigration older than the U.S. itself
June 15, 2018
Finally, after agonizing procedural wrangling that is only a preface to even more agonizing floor debate, the House in the next several days will take up the immigration issue.
But the truth is that debates about immigration are even older than the United States itself, built as it was by 17th-century Colonial immigrants who, when they landed on these shores, encountered Native Americans who were likely the original immigrants.
From the earliest debates on the issue, the character and content of the American immigration discussion has changed little. Many want to come in; some want to keep them out. They refresh American culture; they alter American culture. They are the engine of economic growth; they are the enemy of the worker.
Pulitzer Prizes have been won on the immigration issue (Oscar Handlin, "The Uprooted," 1952); reputations have been soiled by immigration (Sen. Pat McCarran of Nevada, whose legislation was passed by Congress over Harry Truman's veto); a political party was formed around immigration (the Know Nothings of the mid-1850s).
Throughout all of this, what often is missed is an unusual congruence of opinion by two men with the same initials, one a Democrat now identified with the liberal wing of his party (President John F. Kennedy) and the other a Republican once considered to be on the leading edge of conservatism in his party (Rep. Jack F. Kemp).
Kemp, who represented the area around Buffalo, New York, a center of 19th-century immigration from southern and eastern Europe, worried that the Republican Party was veering from its roots and embracing immigration restrictions that could, in his words, "turn the party away from its historic belief in opportunity and jobs and growth and … inward to a protectionist and isolationist and more xenophobic party."
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Kennedy, in a small book written in 1958 as Congress was considering immigration legislation, took a similar view, arguing that:
(T)he interaction of disparate cultures, the vehemence of the ideals that led the immigrants here, the opportunity offered by a new life, all gave America a flavor and a character that make it as unmistakable and as remarkable to people today as it was to Alexis de Tocqueville in the early part of the nineteenth century.
That book was reissued a few years ago under the title "A Nation of Immigrants," and though the 35th president was serious about protecting American borders — one of his last acts in the White House was to propose a major overhaul of the country's immigration policies — he also believed that much of the heroic nature of America was based on the immigrant experience:
They huddled in their hard, cramped bunks, freezing when the hatches were open, stifling when they were closed … Night and day were indistinguishable. But they were ever aware of the treacherous winds and waves, the scampering of rats and the splash of burials.
That was part of the Kemp creed as well. He argued that "immigrants are among the most hard-working and industrious of all persons who reside in this society. They are far less likely in their working years to — despite poverty — rely on welfare programs."
This debate has often been spurred by emotion. Kennedy was the first Catholic president (1961-1963), but not the first Catholic presidential nominee. That was Al Smith (1924); Rose Kennedy dismissed the Smith precedent because one of the New York governor's grandparents was Italian and the other German, while all four of Kennedy's grandparents were Irish. But Kennedy knew that immigration meant disruption, and he wrote this of the immigrants:
They brought with them a bewildering variety of language, dress, custom, ideology and religious belief. To many Americans already here who had grown accustomed to a common way of life, they presented a dismaying bedlam, difficult to understand and more difficult to respond to.
Kemp was an extemporaneous speaker of great ebullience who, in accepting the 1996 Republican vice-presidential nomination, said: "We are a nation of immigrants. We must close the back door of illegal immigration so that we can keep open the front door of legal immigration."
Kennedy's 1963 immigration bill would eliminate the quotas baked into American policy for decades. In an address to the convention of the American Committee on Italian Migration, he said: "We have this situation which has become nearly intolerable, where you have thousands of unused quotas in some countries while you have members of families, close members of families, in other countries who are desirous of coming to this country, who can become useful citizens, whose skills are needed, who are unable to come because of the inequity and the maldistribution of the quota numbers."
That speech was delivered on June 11, 1963. Hours later he gave a nationally televised address following the fractious admission of the first black students to the University of Alabama. In that speech he said, "Today, we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free." Two speeches on the same day, reflecting and asserting the same values.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette email@example.com, 412 263-1890. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.