Teddy Roosevelt’s Real Views On Immigration

Posted on Wed 04/02/2014 by


20080508_hawkins_cr_cBy William R. Hawkins ~

20140401_bidenteddyrooseveltLast Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden quoted Theodore Roosevelt out of context while delivering the keynote address at a meeting of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Biden was pushing the Obama Administration’s desire to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants by citing the alleged views of a great and iconic American President who was also a Republican. Immigration “reform” is currently blocked in the GOP House. Biden’s quote of TR (unacknowledged from 1908) went as follows, “Americanism is not a question of birthplace or creed or a line of descent. It’s the question of principles, idealism, and character.” Teddy Roosevelt did believe this, but he also championed an immigration policy much more in line with the current conservative position than with the Obama White House. Biden asserted that based on TR’s “standard, 11 million undocumented persons are already Americans, in my view.” This was such a gross distortion of the record that it went well beyond the Vice President’s well-known gift for gaffes. It was a blatant attempt to mislead the public by claiming a false endorsement.

For Teddy Roosevelt, not all immigrants were the same; they did not all have the attributes cited in the quote misused by Biden. As he said in his annual message to Congress as President in 1905, “We cannot have too much immigration of the right sort and we should have none whatsoever of the wrong sort….The prime need is to keep out all immigrants who will not make good citizens. The laws now existing for the exclusion of undesirable immigrants should be strengthened, Adequate means should be adopted, enforced by sufficient penalties, to compel steamship companies engaged in the passenger business to observe in good faith the law which forbids them to encourage or solicit immigration to the United States.”

His views did not change over the course of his career. As early as 1888, he said in a speech in New York City, “I wish Congress would revise our laws about immigration. Paupers and assisted immigrants of all kinds should be kept out; so should every variety of Anarchists….We must soon try to prevent too many laborers coming here and underselling our own workmen in the labor market; a good round head tax on each immigrant, together with a rigid examination into his character would work well.”

As President, he restated these principles in his 1901 annual message to Congress, “All persons should be excluded who are below a certain standard of economic fitness to enter our industrial field as competitors with American labor. There should be proper proof of personal capacity to earn an American living and enough money to ensure a decent start under American conditions. This would stop the influx of cheap labor.” He did not share the desire of liberals (and many business leaders) to import poverty and breed a new proletariat.  In the same speech, he continued to urge that “we should aim to exclude absolutely not only all persons who are known to be believers in anarchist principles or members of anarchist societies; but also all persons who are of a low moral tendency or of unsavory reputation.” TR thus opposed policies that would undermine living standards or support radicalism.

Granting amnesty to illegal immigrants would do both. An analysis of the 2010-2011 Current Population Survey (a joint product of the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) by the non-partisan Center for Immigration Studies found that 57% of illegals live in or near poverty levels and 47% made use of major welfare programs. Cheap labor is a misnomer. Business firms may pay low wages to illegals, but the rest of society makes up for that with subsidies via the welfare state. Even with public assistance, illegals do not “earn an American living.” The result is the expansion of slums and high crime areas. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that 10% of murderers, 31% drug traffickers, 34% of money launderers, 64% of kidnappers, and 28% of food and drug offenders sentenced in 2012 were non-citizens.

The most recent (2011) National Gang Threat Assessment from the FBI reported that nine of the thirteen largest criminal street gangs in the country were based on foreign origins: Mexico, El Salvador, Somalia and the Dominican Republic. Of particular concern was that, “Mexican drug cartel activity has fueled crime in the porous US Southwest Border region, where easy access to weapons, a high demand for drugs, ample opportunity for law enforcement corruption, and a large Hispanic population ripe for recruitment and exploitation exists.”

A thoughtful conservative like Teddy Roosevelt understood that America’s greatest achievement has been to turn the working class into the middle class. The United States has vanquished the “proletariat” which was to provide the muscle for a socialist uprising. It is the Left that is trying desperately to recreate a poor and alienated political base that would support radicalism. For the Left, importing a revolution looks expedient; exactly one of the threats TR warned about.

The venue at which Biden spoke would have bothered TR. The group’s name was an act of self-segregation based on race and foreign origins. Teddy Roosevelt despised what he called “hyphenated Americans.” He wrote in 1894, “We welcome the German and the Irishman who becomes an American. We have no use for the German or Irishman who remains such. We do not wish German-Americans or Irish-Americans who figure as such in our social and political life; we want only Americans….We have no room in any healthy American community for a German-American vote or an Irish-American vote, and it is contemptible demagogy to put planks into any party platform with the purpose of catching such a vote.” Today, it is the Hispanic vote that overshadows any discussion of what immigration policy is best for the country as a whole.

Assimilation is vital. “America is a Nation, not a mosaic of nationalities. The various nationalities that come here are not to remain separate, but to blend into the one American nationality,” Roosevelt wrote in a 1918 newspaper column. He continued, “Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or to leave the country….English should be the only language taught and used in the primary schools. We should provide by law so that after a reasonable interval every newspaper in this country should be published in English.” The proliferation of foreign language media today would alarm TR.

Once vetted and assimilated, Roosevelt believed “every immigrant should be treated as a future fellow citizen and not merely a labor unit.”  The policy and process of immigration was, however, to always be a matter of law and national interest. There was no place in Theodore Roosevelt’s approach for illegal immigration. As he said on the campaign trail in 1900, “No nation ever yet retained its freedom for any length of time after losing its respect for the law, after losing the law abiding spirit, the spirit that really makes for orderly liberty.” The legendary Rough Rider would have put his full strength into defeating what Biden and Obama are proposing.

FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.

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