What Joe Biden can learn from Calvin Coolidge on immigration

What Joe Biden can learn from Calvin Coolidge on immigration
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One of the most challenging items on President BidenJoe BidenEx-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' News leaders deal with the post-Trump era MORE’s policy agenda is comprehensive immigration reform. Debate on any bill will be overshadowed by the current surge in migrants to the southern border, the latest uptick in a secular trend that began in the 1980’s. But looking back even further, the questions of who deserves admission to America and in what numbers were also on the agenda of a new administration 100 years ago.

“Since we are confronted with the clamor of multitudes who desire the opportunity offered by American life,” wrote Calvin Coolidge in February 1921, “we must face the situation unflinchingly, determined to relinquish not one iota of our obligations to others, yet not so sentimental as to overlook our obligations to ourselves.”

Coolidge’s immigration essay, “Whose Country Is This,” was published in, of all places, “Good Housekeeping” shortly before his inauguration as vice president. On the surface, his sentiments were not terribly different from those many might express today. But immigration legislation President Warren Harding would shortly sign set America on a course very different from paths being considered in 2021.  


The 1920 Republican Party platform had declared that “The immigration policy of the U. S. should be such as to insure that the number of foreigners in the country at any one 

time shall not exceed that which can be assimilated with reasonable rapidity, and to favor immigrants whose standards are similar to ours.” But such bland language belied the anti-immigrant fervor that was gripping the nation.  

Between 1900 and 1915, more than 15 million immigrants landed in the U.S. That number was equal to the total who had arrived in the 40 years 1860-1900. The majority after 1900 came from non-English speaking European countries, including Italy, Poland and Russia. Italian arrivals numbered three million, and two million of the East Europeans who landed were Jews. These were not viewed as people “whose standards are similar to ours.”

By 1920, nearly 14 million Americans, 13.2 percent of the population, were foreign born. While a slightly lower percentage than in 1900, the gross number had increased by 3.5 million, or 33 percent, in just two decades. And after a migration hiatus during World War I, arrivals in 1921 were soaring. Exclusionists feared a return to pre-war numbers, when it was not uncommon to see over a million come ashore each year. 

Moves toward immigration restriction had begun in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Concerned with the broad impact of immigration on both American culture and prevailing wages, Roosevelt signed the Immigration Act of 1907, the first federal statute to restrict new arrivals based on health or moral character. The Act created the Dillingham Commission, whose exhaustive report in 1911 recommended arrivals pass a literacy test and originated the idea of entry quotas based on national origin. 


In his 2019 study “The Guarded Gate,” Daniel Okrent has documented the anti-immigrant pseudoscience of eugenics that had been gaining credibility since the turn of the century. “Our obligations to others” notwithstanding, Calvin Coolidge’s 1921 “Good Housekeeping” column went on to argue that “biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend” in America. The eugenicists provided data alleging to prove those “biological laws.”

On May 19, 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. The force behind the legislation was Washington state Rep. Albert Johnson, Republican chair of the House Immigration and Nationalization Committee. The committee’s “Expert Eugenics Agent,” was Harry Laughlin, a former school principal, superintendent of the notorious Eugenics Record Office and a national advocate for compulsory sterilization laws. 

But even among those for whom blatant racial arguments held little appeal, there was bipartisan support for restriction across the political spectrum. With the economy slipping into a sharp postwar depression, the Senate vote for the Act was an overwhelming 78-1, with 17 abstentions, and the measure passed the House by acclamation. Harding signed it the same day.

The bill mandated that no more than 3 percent of the total number of immigrants from any specific country already living in the United States in 1910 could now migrate to America in the year ending June 30, 1922. The math effectively capped total immigration to America at fewer than 400,000 for 1922, compared with 800,000 in 1921. But arrivals from eastern and southern Europe would feel the brunt of the impact: Italian immigration in 1922 would be limited to 40,000, compared with 220,000 in 1921. 

The Emergency Act of 1921 would be one-upped by the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, signed by Coolidge as president. That legislation enacted an even more severe formula, capping a nation’s immigration quota at 2 percent of its U.S. population in 1890 (and formally excluded all immigration from Asia). For Italians, the 40,000 cap from the 1921 Act would be further reduced to 4,000.

The long-term impact of the 1921 and 1924 legislation could be seen half a century later. By 1970, the foreign-born population had plunged to 9.6 million, from 13.9 million in 1920. The percentage of the population that was foreign born dropped to an all-time low of 4.7 percent, down from 13.2 percent in 1920. It took until 1965 for legislation to pass reversing that trend. Today, the incidence of foreign-born residents is again approaching 14 percent.

In 2021, America is open to those “divergent people” who so troubled Calvin Coolidge and his contemporaries. And the case for immigrants to augment the country’s labor force and national wealth is stronger than ever.  But in the long term, any comprehensive legislation still must confront the thorny issues of exactly what kind of documented immigrants America wants, and in what numbers they should arrive.

The system today offers preference to applicants who are members of families already resident in the U.S. But there is strong support for a merit-based system, used in Canada and Australia, that awards application points based on education, employment history and language ability. While not based on race or ethnicity, these criteria would represent a contemporary answer to the call in 1920 to favor “immigrants whose standards are similar to ours.”

Americans agree in principle with the Coolidge maxim that the nation should “relinquish not one iota of our obligations to others.” But balancing those responsibilities with “our obligations to ourselves” will remain a complex policy challenge.

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at The Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.