Of the 20 men who have held the Presidency since 1900, Warren Harding may be the most forgotten. Indeed, in nearly every name recognition poll, the 29th President ranks the lowest. When historians do recall his legacy, they think of how he preferred “womanizing to working” and died during a major bribery scandal. But it is crucial that we also examine the long-term effects of perhaps his worst policy—the Emergency Quota Act of 1921—so we can better recognize the pernicious effects of anti-immigrant policies in the present day.
The Emergency Quota Act established the first proportional restriction on immigration to the United States, designating that the number of immigrants from a given country could be only 3 percent of that nation’s population in the United States as of the 1910 Census. This made it especially difficult for would-be immigrants from southern and eastern Europe to enter the country because they comprised a tiny percentage of the US population at the time. Many Republican politicians promoted these quotas in part because immigrants from these regions were likely to join the Democratic Party. A Republican himself, Harding signed the quotas into law as one of his first actions as president.
The impact of Harding’s harmful immigration policy cannot be measured merely by the number of immigrants it excluded. It must also be measured by the negative impacts it has had on the American psyche. Tracing the genealogy of isolationist politics, it is clear that anti-immigration policies like quota laws fuel xenophobia, while pro-immigration policies can foster tolerance.
Three years after the Emergency Quota Law, Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, signed into law the National Origins Act of 1924. This legislation was heavily influenced by a growing fear of communism, which was at the time associated with Polish Jewry. Because the majority of Europe’s Jewish population was concentrated in Eastern Europe, the National Origin Act sought to tilt the immigration system in favor of northern and western Europeans. These policies made it more difficult for most Jews to immigrate to the United States and created the conditions for anti-Semitism to flourish across the nation.
This reality was tragically illustrated in the infamous denial of the MS St. Louis passengers. On June 6th 1939, over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi rule were turned away from US shores. The reason? Quotas. The spots for German and Austrian citizens that had already been filled with a waiting list of several years. President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees. But political considerations, influenced by nativist antisemitism, drowned this possibility. A Fortune poll showed that 83 percent were against loosening immigration restrictions. The battle between nativism and humanitarianism ended with the MS St. Louis being sent back to Europe, where its passengers were murdered in the Holocaust. The fact that the nation as a whole did not come together to support the Jewish community is indicative of its isolationism and anti-Semitism, products of the anti-immigrant legislation enacted only a decade earlier.
Reflecting on Harding’s legacy a century later, we now have the ability to remedy attitudes toward immigrants. But we have a long way to go.
Many native-born Americans sometimes think immigrants steal jobs and introduce undesirable cultural practices. Of course, some people are simply more predisposed to xenophobia than others. But the country’s unempathetic approach to immigration policy surely stokes nativist sentiments. A stringent cap of 675,000 on permanent immigrant visas, an overloaded court system that dawdles in its processing of asylum claims, and brutal detention facilities for migrants on the Southern border create experiences for immigrants that range from confusing to outright torturous. Immigration policies that are friendlier to those fleeing poverty, war, or discrimination—or simply seeking a better life—could change people’s perceptions regarding the moral acceptability of nativism. A critical mass of pro-immigrant voters must first demand more empathetic immigration policy from Congress. If such policy were passed, it would have the potential to change the hearts and minds of some of the country’s more nativist holdouts.
For example, information about the hazards of smoking cigarettes was accepted and believed by the general public only after there was a cultural shift in the social meaning of smoking. Specifically, arguments about the danger of “secondhand smoke” to non-smokers turned indoor smoking into a morally unacceptable thing to do. The spread of indoor anti-smoking laws helped reinforce these beliefs. We saw something similar with the framing of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitled many women to 12 weeks of protected, unpaid leave per year. The act’s passage ensures that time off from work is viewed as a necessary component of fulfilling caretaking responsibilities rather than a reflection of laziness or a poor work ethic.
Laws can thus both reinforce a broad social consensus—for example, many states’ bans on indoor smoking intensify collective social sanctioning of indoor smokers. WIth regard to immigration, if new policies can frame it as a boon to the American economy and portray multiculturalism an asset to our culture, people’s antipathy toward immigrants may be quashed. Adopting a more compassionate immigration program can thus improve not only the economic but also the moral state of the country.
When contemplating what such legislation ought to include, Democrats should keep two considerations in mind: first, the likelihood that their bill will pass and second, its capacity to defuse anti-immigrant sentiment.
One idea that fulfills both criteria is the Immigration Designed to Enhance American Lives (IDEAL) proposal. It strikes a balance between garnering bipartisan support and increasing immigration to widen the labor force. Immigrants given a valid job offer and those able and willing to pay an annual fee of $2,500 to the federal government would be granted visas. The employers must then reimburse the $2,500 every year without diminishing the worker’s wages. Since the worker bears the risk of the upfront payments, the proposal serves to ensure the migrant stays with the job they are offered.
The number of IDEAL visas would fluctuate with the economy, as job offers from employers would go up during booms and down during contractions. When the economy grows, so could the immigrant labor force; when it contracts, so would the immigrant labor force.
This plan can thus do many things. First and foremost, it will increase the number of immigrants in the United States by making visas subject to market forces rather than unnecessary (and often xenophobic) restrictions. Second, it aligns our immigration policy with the demands of the American economy, maximizing the likelihood of bipartisan support. And lastly, over time it could breed compassion for immigrants by communicating that they deserve to come here and in fact are good for the economy and the nation as a whole.
Dark times lie ahead if we are not willing to consider the long-term implications of conservative anti-immigrant policy. During Trump’s 2024 campaign, he will certainly seek to re-politicize immigration as a rhetorical tool. This tool, as time has proven, was dangerous then and is dangerous now. Harding coined the term “founding fathers,” but when crafting US immigration policy, it appears he forgot that they, too, were immigrants. By passing immigration reform in the next two years, the power of xenophobic rhetoric can be weakened come campaign season.