On Immigration

As the political decision on immigration is taking shape, some thoughts on Coolidge’s view of the matter are in order. The Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act) has not been judged favorably by history. Coolidge is even held unfairly responsible for its “racial animus.” Congress, in a series of assertive actions that year, chose to restrict immigration down to 2% of the nations present in the 1890 census, severely rolling back Southern European and Asian entry. The previous law, passed in 1917, had allowed 3% of those present at the 1910 census. Under the new law, after 1927, the annual quotas would reflect those present at the 1920 census. As if this were not enough, the Congress included a refusal of Japanese immigrants into the country, ignoring the Gentleman’s Agreement that had expressed the good will and peace existing between the two nations up to that time. It was the unfortunate letter of Japanese Ambassador Hanihara referring to “grave consequences” from Japan’s government should the bill pass that rallied support for it in Congress. The Congress recklessly interpreted this as a threat of war and emotional reaction, not reasonable discussion, prevailed. Both President Coolidge and Secretary Hughes fought against this momentum without success. It would finally be signed by the President but he would attach a firm protest against so hostile a measure toward a friendly nation. In his protest, he declared how he reconciled defeat on principled grounds, “If the exclusion provision stood alone, I should disapprove it without hesitation, if sought in this way at this time. But this bill is a comprehensive measure dealing with the whole subject of immigration and setting up the necessary administrative machinery…It is of great importance that a comprehensive measure should take its place and that the arrangements for its administration should be provided at once in order to avoid hardship and confusion.” Had it been solely his to decide, his personal disgust with prejudice on the basis of class or color, would have vetoed the bill promptly. But it was given to the Congress, not the President, by the Constitution to outline immigration law. Still, he would not leave people without legal continuity given by the rest of the law as a whole. Were he to withhold his signature then, it would hurt more people by depriving them of the good in the bill without any sure expectation that a better result could be obtained in a Congressional climate so emotionally-charged.

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