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Witcover: What Trump could learn about immigration from Woodrow Wilson

A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a class of newly naturalized American citizens upon their oath-taking at the hallowed Philadelphia Convention Hall. He had some wise words for them that would well-serve his present successor amid his conspicuously ruinous efforts to destroy the American immigration system.

Wilson said then, on May 10, 1915: "This is the only country in the world which experiences this constant and repeated rebirth. Other countries depend upon the multiplication of their own native people. This country is constantly drinking strength out of new sources by the voluntary association with it of great bodies of strong men and forward-looking women out of other lands. And so by the gift of the free will of independent people it is being constantly renewed from generation to generation by the same process by which it was originally created."

The 28th president continued: “You have taken an oath of allegiance to a great ideal, to a great body of principles, to a great hope of the human race. You have said, ‘We are going to America not only to earn a living ... but to help forward the great enterprises of the human spirit — to let men know everywhere in the world there are men who will cross strange oceans, and go where a speech is spoken which is alien to them if they can but satisfy their quest for what their spirits crave; knowing that whatever the speech, there is but one longing and utterance of the human heart, and that is for liberty and justice.’”

Wilson observed:”I certainly would not be one even to suggest that a man cease to love the home of his birth and the nation of his origin ... but it is one thing to love the place where you were born and another thing to dedicate yourself to the place to which you go. You cannot become thorough Americans if you think of yourselves in groups. America does not consist of groups. A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American, and the man who goes among you to trade upon your nationality is no worthy son to live under the Stars and Stripes.”

He went on: “We came to America, either ourselves or in the persons of our ancestors, to better the ideals of men ... to get rid of the things that divide and to make sure of the things that unite. It was but an historical accident no doubt that this great country was called 'the United States.' Yet I am thankful that it has that word 'United' in its title, and the man who seeks to divide man from man, group from group, interest from interest in this great Union is striking at its very heart.”

Finally, Wilson said: “Just because you brought dreams with you, America is more likely to realize dreams such as you brought. You are enriching us if you came expecting us to be better than we are.”

Yet Wilson's full-throated praise for America's open-door policy, conceived to maintain the pool of fresh migrant workers with and without special technical and scientific skills, is under heavy fire today in parts of Donald Trump’s America. Ironically, Wilson’s message that day was overshadowed by pressure put on him to go to war against Germany after the sinking of the British liner Lusitania, in which 128 Americans died.

“There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight,” he said at the end of the same speech. “There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” As a result, all hell came down on pacifist Wilson for so saying.

His shocking remark was widely published and attacked, leaving his stout defense of America's generous and self-sustaining immigration system to prove its own reward and worth over the next century, and counting. Meanwhile, the current misplaced efforts to disrupt our immigration system go on, under a different president who fails to appreciate its continuing enrichment to the miracle of America.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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