95 years ago, an immigrant Socialist Congressman gave this powerful speech on open borders

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Bernie Sanders is already arguably the most successful Jewish and socialist politician in American history. But as I wrote yesterday, he follows in the footsteps of other Jewish socialist elected officials who fought for some of the same principles that are at the heart of Sanders' "political revolution."

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One of those was Meyer London, a union organizer on Manhattan's Lower East Side who emigrated from what is now Lithuania in 1891. A forceful activist and orator, he was one of only two Congressman in the country to be elected from the Socialist Party.


London was also a strong proponent of immigration. During a debate on immigration reform on April 20, 1921, he gave a striking speech in favor of keeping the United State borders open and allowing unlimited immigration. At the time, nativist legislators were passing bill after bill restricting who was allowed into the U.S. "To prevent immigration means to cripple the United States," London argued.

He also fought back against the argument that immigration should be regulated based on"good" and "bad" immigrants or the ideology of people admitted. "You cannot confine an idea behind prison bars," London said.

There are also some fascinating echoes of today's political climate. He spoke less than two years after the end of World War I, and responded to those who would keep out suffering immigrants from war-torn countries. Today, you could imagine his speech being directed at politicians who want to keep out refugees fleeing Syria.

Congress didn't listen to London and instead passed the Emergency Quota Act, which imposed strict country-based quotas on new immigrants. It was intended to be a temporary measure, but just as London predicted, the quotas it imposed lasted for decades. Now, scholars see the bill as a major turning point in the history of U.S. immigration policy. If London's argument had succeeded, our current political debate over immigration could be drastically different.


Sanders has been less enthusiastic about promoting immigration. Open borders, he told Vox's Ezra Klein last year, is a "Koch brothers proposal." Of course, the immigration situation today is wildly different from 1921. But London's speech shows that open borders was a socialist proposal long before the Koch brothers funded their first SuperPAC.

We've reprinted London's full speech on immigration below (emphasis ours), courtesy of the Tamiment Library at NYU, where his papers are held.

Mr. Chairman and gentlemen, I have no hope of presenting even an outline of this subject. The world is still crazy. The war is not over. After preaching for thousands of years the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and then engaging for five years in slaughter, it is but natural that we should be in an abnormal state. While the killing of men's bodies has stopped, the poisoning of minds has just begun. This bill is a continuation of the war upon humanity. It is an assertion of that exaggerated nationalism which never appeals to reason and which has for its main source the self-conceit of accumulated prejudice.

At whom are you striking in this bill? Why, at the very people whom a short while ago you announced you were going to emancipate. We sent 2,000,000 men abroad to make the world "safe for democracy," to liberate these very people. Now you shut the door to them. Yes. So far, we have made the world safe for hypocrisy and the United States incidentally unsafe for the Democratic Party, temporarily at least. [Laughter.]

The supporters of the bill claim that the law will keep out radicals. The idea that by restricting immigration you will prevent the influx of radical thought is altogether untenable. You cannot confine an idea behind prison bars. You cannot exclude it by the most drastic legislation. The field of thought recognizes no barriers. The fact that there was almost no immigration during the War did not prevent us from importing every abominable idea from Europe. We brought over the idea of deportation of radicals from France, not from the France of Rousseau, Jaurés, and Victor Hugo but from the France of the Bourbons. We imported the idea of the censorship of the press and the passport system from. Russia, not from the Russia of Kropotkin and Tolstoy but from the Russia of Nicholas II. We have imported the idea of universal military service from Germany, not from the Germany of Heine, Boerne, and Freiligrath but from the Germany of the Kaiser.

Ideas can neither be shut in nor shut out. There is only one way of contending with an idea, and that is the old and safe American rule of free and untrammeled discussion. Every attempt to use any other method has always proven disastrous.

While purporting to be a temporary measure, just for a year or so, this bill is really intended to pave the way to permanent exclusion.

To prevent immigration means to cripple the United States. Our most developed industrial States are those which have had the largest immigration. Our most backward States industrially and in the point of literacy are those which have had no immigration to speak of. The extraordinary and unprecedented growth of the United States is as much a cause as the effect of immigration.

Defenders of this bill thoughtlessly repeat the exploded theory that there have been two periods of immigration, the good period, which the chairman of the committee fixes up to year 1900, and the bad period since. The strange thing about it is that at no time in history has any country made such rapid progress in industry, in science, and in the sphere of social legislation as this country has shown since 1900. The new immigration is neither different nor worse, and besides that, identically the same arguments were used against the old immigration.

By this bill we, who have escaped the horrors of the war, will refuse a place of refuge to the victims of the war.


(h/t to Seth Lipsky of The Forward, who mentioned this speech in an article last year.)

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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