With over a dozen legitimate GOP candidates vying for their parties nomination, immigration has become the primary policy battleground. Donald Trump, Ted Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz are signaling their toughness with anti-immigrant remarks. In opposition are more libertarian candidates, notably Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. The debate on the Left is much more muted, probably on purpose, because Hillary Clinton is shamelessly unprincipled and Bernie Sanders has a troubled history on the issue.
Yet there is a claim, almost conventional wisdom, that the Republican party is more racist and xenophobic and anti-immigrant that is not only oversimplified (wrong) but ahistorical. In short, there’s a fantasy among far too many Americans today that the Democratic party is and always has been “good” on race issues. Let’s remember, this Democratic party is the same party that went to war for slavery. It’s not as if the old party went out of business and sold the logo to some upcoming SuperPac in 1924. Or 1964.
POLITICO’s Mike Kazin warns us that an anti-immigration GOP is likely to lead to Democratic dominance for decades, just like in 1924 when “a Congress dominated by Republicans enacted equally harsh policies against immigrants. Their success helped usher in the longest period of one-party rule in the 20th century.”
But is that what really happened? The Immigration Act of 1924 passed by large majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Kazin seems to gloss over the reality of how decisive Democrats were in these votes. The tally in the House was 323 to 71. The tally in the Senate was 69-9. Only nine Senators opposed the act, and only 3 of those voting Nay were Democrats.
This legislation sets the (low) standard for racist nativism in the history of U.S. laws. It was inspired by racist theories of Nordic superiority over southern Europeans, Jews, Asians, etc. The law instituted a strict immigrant quota on each country. Immigrants from Germany, England, and Sweden were limited to 51,227, 34,007, and 9,561 respectively per year. No more than 100 immigrants were allowed from most other countries, including China, India, Japan, Greece, Persia, and Turkey. Jewish immigration in particular was curtailed. The theory on the hard Left then, as now, was that low-skilled immigrants stole jobs.
The most forceful proponent in favor of the Immigration Act of 1924 was U.S. Senator Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith, a Democratic Party politician from South Carolina. “The time has come when we should shut the door and keep what we have for what we hope our own people to be,” Smith proclaimed in an infamous speech. Zero-sum economic thinking on the Left has not changed since, even if the racial tones have been excised.
Kazin is wrong. The xenophobia of 1924 was not a Republican project. Indeed, President Calvin Coolidge spoke against the Japanese quota in particular in his signing statement. An even clearer indication of the partisan difference came five years later in 1929 when an effort in the Senate to repeal the quotas was defeated. Look at the tallies of the 1929 vote here if you don’t believe me. A majority of Republicans voted for repeal (26-19), while three-quarters of the Democrats voted against (10-24).
The conclusion we should make is not that one party is better than the other, more or less racist than other, or any such simple claim. There are heroes and villains in both parties. A particular hero is President Harry Truman, a Democrat who spoke so dangerously of his Christian faith in the brotherhood of man. Truman merits the last word:
What we do in the field of immigration and naturalization is vital to the continued growth and internal development of the U.S. – to the economic and social strength of our country – which is the core of the defense of the free world. Our immigration policy is equally, if not more important to the conduct of our foreign relationships and to our responsibilities of moral leadership in the struggle for world peace.
I have long urged that racial or national barriers to naturalization be abolished. … I want all our residents of Japanese ancestry, and all our friends throughout the far East, to understand this point clearly. I cannot take the step I would like to take, and strike down the bars that prejudice has erected against them, without, at the same time, establishing new discriminations against the peoples of Asia and approving harsh and repressive measures directed at all who seek a new life within our boundaries. I am sure that with a little more time and a little more discussion in this country the public conscience and the good sense of the American people will assert themselves, and we shall be in a position to enact an immigration and naturalization policy that will be fair to all.