More than a decade before he became Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running mate, the Texas Democrat John Nance Garner tried to convince the biggest immigrant hater in Congress that his state desperately needed Mexican labor.
“I do not mean to say by that, Mr. Chairman, that the character of the people that would come in under this resolution are particularly desirable citizens; I won’t make that statement,” Garner told the Washington Republican Albert Johnson, testifying before the immigration committee in 1920. “But I do make this statement: that the people that would come in under this resolution—in my opinion, 80 percent of them will return to Mexico. They do not know anything about government. They come over here to get a little money and go back to Mexico because they would rather live there.”
Garner understood his audience. Johnson, whose rise to power involved both crushing labor unions and railing against Asian immigration, was most worried about preserving the political hegemony of Americans he considered white. A minority perspective in the hearing, represented by the Texan entrepreneur Clark Pease, was that Mexicans make “just as good citizens” as anyone else.
“The trouble is that you ask for them only for one year, and you know you will want them back again in another year,” Johnson said, addressing those who had testified that Mexican immigration would be a boon to the United States. “You fail to look to the future. You forget that the South never realized 100 years ago that the Negro would sit in the legislatures. The citizens of those states never thought it could happen, but it did.”
Garner likely agreed with Johnson on that point, having supported post-Reconstruction efforts to disenfranchise black voters in Texas. Neither man wanted to see Mexican laborers stay in Texas and become American citizens, but Texas’s commercial interest in cheap labor was too great for Garner to support measures to further restrict Mexican immigration.
By Adam Serwer for THE ATLANTIC
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