As a side note, nobody falls for the not-at-all subtle equivocation of using "immigrants" to refer both to the settlers who built this nation from the ground up while at war with the Indians and the British, and the much later waves who saw what a prosperous and peaceful society had been created and wanted to enjoy its fruits without having contributed to its cultivation.
Everybody understands that "immigrants" really means the ones who came after a society had been built -- we don't refer to the Iroquois Federation as "a nation of immigrants" just because they originally came from outside the Americas, in Asia, as though to suggest they had no greater claim to eastern America than the European settlers did. They built up a whole society out of nothing before we got here, so they were no longer immigrants. When we built up a whole society that displaced theirs, we were no longer immigrants.
At any rate, you might think that this "nation of immigrants" canard belongs to the liberals, what with their reliance on non-whites and immigrants for electoral success. You'd think the conservatives would emphasize the ethnic Us vs. Them distinction more strongly, as well as the reverence for tradition -- and only some ethnic groups contributed to the traditions of Americana.
That may be true, yet on a partisan level, it has been the Republicans rather than the Democrats who have pushed this propaganda the most forcefully, and mostly during the transition away from the New Deal period and into the Reaganite period. The Democrats who do push this narrative are not driving the trend but jumping on the Republican bandwagon during a period of GOP dominance in the Reagan era.
We might try to resolve this paradox by pointing out that the Reaganites are not conservative on social or cultural issues, only on economic issues, and that they are more libertarian -- socially liberal, economically conservative. But then you'd expect the Democrats of the New Deal and Great Society period to have floated this narrative, since they too were socially and culturally liberal. Yet they did not, because they were economically liberal -- and wide open borders means more competition in the labor market, which drives down wages, screwing over the working class and handing over free money to lazy employers.
It is this unique combination that has unleashed the "nation of immigrants" propaganda, as well as its policy of open borders -- culturally liberal, to admit alien cultures for more than just a visit, and economically conservative, to seek any means possible for driving down wages so that lazy and greedy employers don't have to earn their higher profit margins (e.g., by "building a better mousetrap").
Anyone who supports economic populism must never deploy this propaganda, especially the culturally liberal populists who are more susceptible to its multi-culti feel-goodiness. Their heroes of the New Deal and Great Society never used it -- not that they bashed immigrants, but they avoided playing into the hands of exploitative employers, who would've been only too happy for the populist left to preach the false gospel of wage-crushing open borders.
Strategically, if voters wanted a Democrat who supports open borders, they'd go with the neoliberals who have a wonderful track record. Populist primary challengers on the left must run on a platform that distinguishes them from the neoliberal Establishment, and open borders ain't it.
The rest of this post will look at the New Deal / Great Society period, while a second post will cover the neoliberal / Reaganite period.
* * *
To review the history, I looked at what previous presidents said during the Independence Day period (the first week of July, since they sometimes gave remarks a little before or after July 4th itself). I used UCSB's American Presidency Project.
Beginning with the founder of the New Deal period, FDR gave no July 4th speeches during any of his four terms that mentioned our nation's founding in the context of later waves of immigration, let alone to motivate current policies on immigration. In fact, he spoke at Monticello for his 1936 speech, where naturalization ceremonies take place -- and yet his remarks made no reference to America being a "nation of immigrants," or that "we all used to be immigrants," etc. His messages referred to the Founding Fathers and the Civil War, or WWII for current events, but not immigration.
In 1947, Truman gave a speech a few days after July 4th in which he urged the government to admit European refugees in the wake of WWII. He does refer to the diverse groups of people that America has assimilated, but he is only using this to motivate a policy of letting in handfuls of European refugees, which he explicitly says will be OK because they're so ethnically similar to existing Americans:
In the light of the vast numbers of people of all countries that we have usefully assimilated into our national life, it is clear that we could readily absorb the relatively small number of these displaced persons who would be admitted. We should not forget that our Nation was founded by immigrants many of whom fled oppression and persecution. We have thrived on the energy and diversity of many peoples. It is a source of our strength that we number among our people all the major religions, races and national origins.
Most of the individuals in the displaced persons centers already have strong roots in this country--by kinship, religion or national origin. Their occupational background clearly indicates that they can quickly become useful members of our American communities. Their kinsmen, already in the United States, have been vital factors in farm and workshop for generations. They have made lasting contributions to our arts and sciences and political life. They have been numbered among our honored dead on every battlefield of war.
The conclusion that he's only referring to open borders in the past, not the present, is made clearer in his remarks on July 4th itself, in the context of international cooperation in the post-WWII world (my emphasis):
It is now the duty of all nations to converge their policies toward common goals of peace. Of course, we cannot expect all nations, with different histories, institutions, and economic conditions, to agree at once upon common ideals and policies. But it is not too much to expect that all nations should create, each within its own borders, the requisites for the growth of worldwide harmony.
Eisenhower never referred to immigration in any of his July 4th speeches.
Kennedy did not either, even though his political clan was an Ellis Island Irish family.
Johnson ignored the topic as well, despite hailing from the border state of Texas.
Nixon, like Truman, did refer to our history of immigration, although -- also like Truman -- not to motivate a policy of bringing back mass immigration. As far as he lets on, immigration was a thing of the past. In a speech from 1972:
More than any other nation of any area, America has truly been the home of the free and the haven of the weak and oppressed from other parts of the world. And the catalyst of American values has transformed the weak and the oppressed into part of a strong and a just people.
In a related speech on preparing for the Bicentennial, he goes into greater detail on our history of immigration and assimilation, although again it is not to argue for more immigration. The context is seeking post-WWII cooperation among nations, and wanting international visitors -- not immigrants -- to see what their co-ethnics have done for this society, on the occasion of its Bicentennial (and then they go back):
First, because America is and always has been a nation of nations. Patriots from France and Prussia and Poland helped us win our Revolution. Strong men and women of every color and creed from every continent helped to build our farms, our industry, our cities.
The blood of all peoples runs in our veins, the cultures of all peoples contribute to our culture, and, to a certain extent, the hopes of all peoples are bound up with our own hopes for the continuing success of the American experiment.
Our Bicentennial Era is a time for America to say to the nations of the world: "You helped to make us what we are. Come and see what wonders your countrymen have worked in this new country of ours. Come and let us say thank you. Come and join in our celebration of a proud past. Come and share our dreams of a brighter future."
Generally speaking, the only mention of foreigners or foreign countries during the New Deal and Great Society period was to present the communist and fascist countries as a dictatorial foil to the American nation celebrating its independence and tradition of liberty. Or in a positive tone, to refer to those suffering under not-so-free governments for whom the ideas and actions embodied in the Declaration of Independence could act as a role model -- at a distance.
This was a period of growing prosperity and narrowing inequality, all the way back to the Great Depression, which was more of a decapitation of the undeservedly rich -- who had borrowed massive sums to gamble on the stock market during the Roaring Twenties -- than an evisceration of the working class. Trying to sanctify immigration by incorporating it into our national creation myth, and the story of its evolution, would only have reminded people of the Dickensian working and living conditions that mass immigration leads inexorably towards -- totally opposed to the zeitgeist of The Wonder Years.
It would not be until the New Deal and Great Society came under attack, in the wake of the mid-1970s recession, that presidents would start to use the occasion of Independence Day to sanctify immigration, in order to call for literal boatloads more of it. The elites were going to pursue a program of cheap labor, and that required all the neo-Dickensian immigrants that the bureaucracy could possibly process. Just proclaiming that the days of prosperity are over, would not make a good rationalization. Instead, cheap labor had to be protected by cultural sanctification, against which any argument would be an unforgivable taboo.