None of us should be surprised that President Trump called Haiti and some African nations “shithole countries.”
The Trump administration has spent much of its first year in office putting its stamp on how the federal government manages immigrant and refugee admissions. His controversial executive orders aimed at implementing a diluted version of the so-called “Muslim ban” and the White House’s demands for a border wall derive from the worldview that he verbalized openly in referring to Haitian and African immigrants.
While the president’s inflammatory rhetoric continues to dominate the headlines, he is not alone in promoting racially driven immigration policies. Over the past 50 years, policymakers have grappled with the economic, cultural and racial implications of our immigration policies.
But over the past three decades, it is the racially charged narrative of illegal immigration and national security that has increasingly prevailed in framing the debate.
This shift helped Donald Trump win the 2016 election and now threatens to return our country to a tragic period when chauvinistic impulses guided immigration policies and were used to enforce rigid racial hierarchies in the provision and/or denial of citizenship rights.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 has long been celebrated for dismantling the discriminatory “national origins” quota system that gave preferential treatment to immigrants from Western Europe while placing restrictive limits on people from Southern and Eastern Europe and effectively barring Asian immigrants altogether. The new law prioritized family reunification and, to a lesser degree, the entry of high-skilled workers. The shift to family-centric immigration was intended to benefit groups such as the Italians, Greeks and Jews who had been adversely affected by the old selection regime.
The legislation, however, unintentionally spurred a large increase in Asian and Latino immigrants who took advantage of the new rules to sponsor relatives facing political and economic dislocation in their homelands — much of it a direct outgrowth of America’s geopolitical entanglements in Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Conservatives began expressing alarm in the 1970s and 1980s as the entry of newcomers from Asia and Latin America outpaced immigration from Europe. Republicans, however, lacked a unified policy response. Free-market disciples viewed immigrant labor as essential to the country’s economic competitiveness, while law and order hard-liners regarded unauthorized immigration as a threat to the federal government’s sovereign police powers.
At first, the former group won when President Ronald Reagan and fiscal conservatives joined with Democratic lawmakers to pass the Simpson-Mazzoli Act in 1986. The bill acknowledged the economic contributions of over 2 million undocumented Latinos by granting them a path to U.S. citizenship.
Even as the conservative Reagan was signing the new law, however, a key block of Republican lawmakers launched a series of legislative bids to roll back the family reunification provisions in immigration law and reduce annual admissions. Reconciling their desire to slash family admissions with their self-branding as the “family values” party proved difficult and allowed critics on the left to argue that their legislative push was motivated by animus toward nonwhite immigrants.
Since the 1980s, Democrats have successfully thwarted these repeated Republican efforts to dismantle the core tenets of the 1965 act by drawing a bright line between legal and unauthorized immigration streams. They defended current levels of legal immigration as reasonable and instead identified the real problem as the porous Southern border that facilitates illicit entry.
This victory has come at a price, however. By framing legal immigration as intrinsically “good,” Democrats have acceded that unauthorized immigration is “bad.” Consequently, both parties have agreed to massive spending increases on border security aimed at preventing “illegal” immigration, a political ritual that continues unabated despite negligible returns on investment.
The Republicans pushing for restriction gained newfound traction within their own party beginning in the 1990s by reframing immigration as a national security matter rather than a labor or human rights issue. The World Trade Center bombing in 1993 marked a key turning point and loomed large in the bipartisan support for the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which effectively linked immigration and terrorism.
Though President George W. Bush, along with some Republican legislators, favored comprehensive immigration reform, the hard-liners and allies in the conservative media succeeded in beating back reform efforts during both the Bush and Obama years. Now, in the era of Trump, the nativist faction is ascendant — with a vocal champion in the White House who has unabashedly exploited racial and cultural anxieties to shore up support for exclusionary policies.
Taken as a whole, Trump’s recent statement and conservative talking points about the perils of the current immigration system underscore the racial underpinnings of this strategy.
Attacks on “chain migration” employ coded language to conjure images of faceless migrant throngs from Asia, Africa and Latin America who piggyback on their family members’ residency status to settle in the United States. Similarly, criticism of the diversity lottery program promotes the conceit that nonwhite immigrants receive special treatment under U.S. policy. Both notions stem from the belief that these immigrants imperil American society.
Moreover, the effort to replace the family reunification system (i.e., chain migration) with a “merit-based” immigration formula represents a radical break with American traditions. On its face innocuous, or even sensible, a merit-based system has a far more pernicious idea at its core: the notion that only wealthy individuals or highly educated immigrants are meritorious. In other words, it would institutionalize class exclusion as a primary criterion of admission.
The large majority of immigrants who came to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries were people of modest means and limited education who sought opportunities and security, just as many immigrants do today. And while the United States needs high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs, it also needs agricultural workers, nurses, meatpackers and landscapers who make essential contributions to our society and reinforce the notion that the equitable provision of opportunity is a core American value.
Proponents of a robust and pragmatic immigration system must offer a forceful counternarrative that champions progressive policy as vital to our nation’s interests. Democratic lawmakers have, so far, failed to offer a coherent vision for immigration reform and instead have allowed the Republicans to define the issue in increasingly Manichaean terms.
Democrats should make the immigrants’ cause a centerpiece of their electoral strategy, espousing the message that the American Dream and the immigrant dream are intertwined and tapping into the broad coalition of forces (churches, ethnic organizations, students, tech companies, etc.) that recognizes that immigrants are a source of strength and vitality central to any project that seeks to reinvigorate American greatness.