President Trump attends a White House discussion Thursday on making changes to the prison system. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

There is far more to the latest controversy surrounding President Trump than the vulgar and implicitly racist language he used to draw a distinction between desirable and undesirable immigrants.

Trump's choice of words also revealed a deeper and more substantive truth about how the president views — and misunderstands — America's unique relationship with its immigrants.

Trump claims to want, as he tweeted Friday morning, a "merit based system of immigration and people who will help take our country to the next level."

Yet the president did not talk about the qualifications of the people he seeks to bring in — that they be scientists, engineers, doctors. Instead, during private remarks to lawmakers in the Oval Office on Thursday, he focused on their origins — putting a preference on places like Norway, which consistently ranks among the richest nations in the world, over "shithole countries."

By his standard, the ancestors of most Americans, including his own, might well have been excluded. Hardship is traditionally what drives people to uproot and seek out opportunities elsewhere.

"It's the people who have the motivation, who have the push and drive to change their circumstances, who are the ones who take the risks to leave. And that tends to be a very positive set of personal characteristics for a country that is a receiving country," said Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration, who is now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

"The idea that if you're from a country that is a failing country, that somehow predicts or forecloses you from being able to succeed as an immigrant, I've never heard of anything like that," Meissner said.

Trump's words, with their racial connotations, also suggest he wants to return to what has come to be regarded as one of the more shameful and xenophobic periods of immigration policy.

In 1924, a set of laws was passed that set quotas limiting the number of people admitted to this country based on where they came from, with a goal of preserving the United States' ethnic homogeneity.

"The premise of national origin quotas was that some countries produce good immigrants, others produce bad immigrants," said NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten, author of the 2015 book "A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story."


President Trump speaks during a meeting with lawmakers on immigration policy in the Cabinet Room at the White House on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

"There were actually 'scientific' studies purporting to categorize countries according to the quality and characteristics of their people, and the quotas were devised in part on the basis of the testimony of 'expert' opinion," Gjelten said.

Those pseudoscientific conclusions produced a system that heavily favored predominantly white countries.

Norway got 6,500 annual slots, while the entire continent of Africa was allowed only 1,200.

Even within Europe, there was a tilt that corresponded with complexion. Northern and Scandinavian countries could send 142,483 a year; eastern and southern Europe, only 18,439.

That system remained in place until 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson, as part of his Great Society initiative, convinced Congress to replace national quotas with a preference for preserving families and attracting skilled labor. Allowing immigrants to bring over relatives is what Trump and other Republicans now refer to as "chain migration," and it is something they want to end.

LBJ also portrayed his immigration as a merit-based system, declaring as he signed the law on Liberty Island: "This is a simple test, and it is a fair test. Those who can contribute most to this country — to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit — will be the first that are admitted."

"The fairness of this standard is so self-evident that we may well wonder that it has not always been applied," Johnson added. "Yet the fact is that for over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and has been distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system."

Even before Trump's comments in a private meeting Thursday, his administration had made it clear that long-held values about immigration should no longer apply.

In an appearance last August on CNN, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller even quarreled with the sentiment of the famous Emma Lazarus poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, one that practically every elementary school student knows: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

"The poem that you're referring to was added later. It's not actually part of the Statue of Liberty," Miller said.

That missed a larger point: The statue itself was French; the poem is what helped make it American.

This is far from the first argument the country has had over who it should welcome, and it surely will not be the last.

"Each new generation that comes is controversial. You look at immigration in the rearview mirror, it typically turns out right and benign. You look at it as it's happening, and it's always controversial and unwelcome," Meissner said.

"And yet, that is among our defining characteristics and one of the reasons that we're a successful nation," she added. "It's an enormous comparative advantage to most other societies around the world, and has been proven to be over time."