Know-Nothings vs. Restrictionists

By Mark Krikorian on June 4, 2009

I was the keynote speaker at a big naturalization ceremony yesterday at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, Calif. (a really cool art-deco building, at least on the inside; maybe there is some there there after all). I gave a version of my naturalization speech to the nearly 1,000 new citizens, plus maybe 1,500 friends and family, who greeted it with pretty boisterous applause, much more so than at the more sedate ceremonies I've addressed in D.C. and Baltimore.

Afterwards, the new citizens' main paperwork concern seemed to be where to submit their applications for a U.S. passport and how to inform Social Security of their change in status. But there was a reasonably popular table in the lobby for new citizens to register to vote (and an election official explained the process to the seated citizenship candidates before the ceremony got started). I'm told there were also representatives of the political parties out front on the sidewalk trying to lasso supporters. No doubt the Democrats had more success, since immigrant groups, with few exceptions, have historically always been more inclined to initially support Democrats and their predecessor party, the Jeffersonian Republicans. But what struck me was the different ways Republicans and their predecessor parties have responded. On the one hand, modern restrictionists (who aren't all Republicans, obviously, though many are) celebrate the naturalization of legal immigrants, welcoming them into the American people, while at the same time arguing for the limits on future immigration that our modern circumstances require — a pro-immigrant policy of low immigration. By contrast, the Know-Nothings of the mid-19th century (and the Federalists in the Naturalization Act of 1798, part of the Alien and Sedition Acts) followed the opposite path; they were less interested in limits on immigration than in preventing those foreigners who arrived here from becoming citizens — an anti-immigrant policy of mass immigration.

And who are the heirs of the Know-Nothing approach to immigration? Not the restrictionists, obviously; rather, it's much of the high-immigration Right that pursues this approach. The corporate Right pushes for dramatic increases in guestworker programs — a way of continuing the mass importation of cheap labor without allowing the laborers access to the political system. On a more theoretical level, many libertarians draw a distinction between immigration and citizenship, explicitly calling for open borders but denial of political rights to those who come, so they don't vote for big government; I've heard Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation, for instance, make precisely this point.

Next time one of these characters is tempted to hurl the epithet "Know-Nothings," he might do better to look in the mirror.