The Corner

We Have Much to Learn from Coolidge on Immigration

In K-Lo’s interview with Amity Shlaes about her great new book Coolidge, Kathryn asked the author “Can we learn from Coolidge on immigration”? Shlaes’s response was “Not so much.” Actually there is much that we can learn from Coolidge on immigration, and particularly on the core principles that Silent Cal articulated as guiding his immigration policy. In his address to Congress on December 6, 1923, President Coolidge stated: “American institutions rest solely on good citizenship. . . . New arrivals should be limited to our capacity to absorb them into the ranks of good citizenship.”   

Yes indeed, “to absorb them into the ranks of good citizenship.” In other words, the key to a successful immigration policy was a successful patriotic assimilation or Americanization policy. Unfortunately we don’t hear much about the necessity for patriotic assimilation today in the current debates over immigration reform. Coolidge signed the immigration restriction legislation of 1924 because he believed that more time was needed to Americanize the immigrants that were already present in the country.

My Sicilian immigrant relatives, at the time, were opposed to the legislation because it greatly limited immigration from Italy. But, Coolidge was right in judging that the restrictions aided their eventual Americanization, which would have been much more difficult with an unending influx of mass immigration. To her credit, Amity Shlaes does helpfully note that Coolidge opposed the provisions in the legislation that excluded Japanese immigrants; favored an individual rather than a group-basis approach for citizenship; and worried about ethnic bloc voting. Yes we have much to learn from Silent Cal on immigration, as on so much else.

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