State of the Union reports by presidents can be “reservoirs” as well as “watersheds.”
They can sum up what has been done and accomplished, and they can point to new directions (perhaps at an accelerating pace).
Donald Trump gave his delayed State of the Union on Feb. 5. Some comparisons can be offered with how immigration issues were addressed in the 1906 State of the Union presented (in writing) by President Theodore Roosevelt.
In the early 1900s, the time of the largest, most diverse migration in our nation’s history (and an era of rising bigotry and xenophobia), President Roosevelt’s State of the Union set new directions on this controversial issue.
Roosevelt gave explicit views supporting the vast numbers of “new” immigrants, writing in his State of the Union: “We must treat with justice and goodwill all immigrants who come here under the law. Whether they are Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Gentile; whether they come from England or Germany, Russia, Japan, or Italy, matters nothing.”
He also directly challenged the widespread prejudice and discrimination at Ellis Island and in our nation. Roosevelt rejected earlier negative views that he, himself, had presented. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin cites his data attentiveness and empathy that led to growth.
At a time when Congress and much of the public showed extreme negativity toward Southeastern Europeans (predominantly Italians and Jews), Roosevelt had the audacity to select the first Jew ever to serve as a U.S. cabinet leader. The appointment of Oscar Strauss has not been adequately noted in history books.
Roosevelt was a Republican, but he was willing to select Democrat Strauss for Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Oscar Strauss was an immigrant who was dramatically successful in the United States.
He was a graduate of Columbia University and its law school. He later joined the highly successful business ventures of his family, taking over R.H. Macy from bankruptcy, and then creating Abraham and Strauss through a merger with a Brooklyn company.
Historian Tyler Anbinder writes that Roosevelt “must have seen Strauss as something of an intellectual soul mate.” Both are described as “voracious readers of history” (a stark contrast to Trump, despite all of his hours of “executive time”).
Largely unknown to most Americans then, and subsequently, was the power in Strauss’s Cabinet to oversee immigration law and practices (authority having been shifted from the Treasury Department).
Strauss’s humanitarian concerns and empathetic standards made Ellis Island and U.S. practices more responsive and supportive of immigrants than they had been previously (or would become after he was replaced by a different president).
This column is being submitted four days before the Feb. 15 negotiation deadline. There could be another government shutdown. Trump’s State of the Union provided no substantive views that he might exhibit Roosevelt’s capacities for change and growth.
Reporter Jill Colvin noted: “Trump raised eyebrows in his State of the Union speech when he said he wanted people ’to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.’
His policy positions to date do not reflect that wish.” Typically, Trump’s major focus was on his wall for “national security.”
“The immigration system is broken, but the president has no interest in fixing it,” wrote New York Times columnist Roger Cohen on Feb. 9.
Whatever the decisions by Feb. 15, two key aspects of immigration reform are continuing: 1. establishing a legal threshold for numbers of immigrants each year (through defined processes) and making a commitment to reexamine numbers and procedures at regular intervals (at least every two or three years).
Also an urgent consideration: 2. is how to proceed with people seeking refugee and asylum status. There is a key distinction here: refugees are approved before they come to the U.S. at our embassies in other nations, while asylees rely on international law that grants individuals the right to be reviewed for admission to any nation once they are within its borders, regardless of how they got there.
The qualifications to be considered for refugee and aslyee status have changed over the years. There are questions regarding the review process, and whether absolute annual numbers should be set.
Fundamental questions concern whether the U.S. should make collaborative efforts to plan and act on the international refugee crises with other nations and whether the U.S. should continue to abide by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights (led by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948).
Determinations regarding who we should admit, how many, and using what criteria, are complex matters that call for informed data from nonpartisan commissions.
Backed by the president and Congress, such commissions would be well advised to engage the American public in discussing options (especially because our immigration system has become such a mess).
Our nation can advance more effectively with thoughtful national conversations about immigration challenges. Indeed, these activities could take place throughout our states and resemble the deliberative processes of juries. (More on that in my next column.)