In Trump’s re­marks on im­mi­gra­tion, echoes of his­tory

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Vi­vian Yee

WASH­ING­TON – The ar­gu­ment was gen­teel, the tone ju­di­cious, the mean­ing plain: Amer­ica, wrote the sen­a­tor lead­ing Congress’ push for im­mi­gra­tion re­form in 1924, was be­gin­ning to “smart un­der the ir­ri­ta­tion” of im­mi­grants who “speak a for­eign lan­guage and live a for­eign life.”

The year be­fore, things had been slightly less deco­rous. A cer­tain un­named coun­try in Europe was mak­ing the U.S. “a dump­ing ground for its un­de­sir­able na­tion­als,” the pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory, Henry Fair­field Os­born, told a na­tional im­mi­gra­tion con­fer­ence.

Here in 2018, the world­view that last gained wide ac­cep­tance nearly a cen­tury ago has found per­haps its most suc­cinct ex­pres­sion yet – dis­tilled, this time, to a pun­gent ques­tion from Pres­i­dent Trump: Why should the United States take in im­mi­grants from “s... hole coun­tries” in Africa over peo­ple from places like Nor­way?

Trump, who made the re­mark while dis­cussing po­ten­tial im­mi­gra­tion leg­is­la­tion with mem­bers of Congress at the White House on Thurs­day, also asked, “Why do we want peo­ple from Haiti here? ... Take them out.” (While Trump has de­nied that he had used some of the deroga­tory lan­guage, a sen­a­tor who at­tended the meeting con­firmed that he had.)

His com­men­tary struck many Repub­li­cans as well as Democrats as ex­treme, if not out­right racist. But the words were a Twit­ter-era det­o­na­tion of an at­ti­tude that once be­fore shaped U.S. im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, an at­ti­tude that, even af­ter the coun­try tried to re­verse it­self by loos­en­ing im­mi­gra­tion laws in the 1960s, seems to have loi­tered on in the na­tional at­tic.

Its resur­fac­ing in the pub­lic sphere cap­sizes a half-cen­tury of main­stream con­sen­sus: that im­mi­grants en­rich the United States, no mat­ter where they come from.

Trump’s re­marks were “sadly rem­i­nis­cent of the lan­guage used by na­tivists and racists in the early 20th cen­tury against Eastern and South­ern Euro­peans and Asians,” said Mae Ngai, an im­mi­gra­tion his­to­rian at Columbia Univer­sity.

“Ob­vi­ously he likes Nor­we­gians be­cause they are white,” she added. “But he knows noth­ing about Nor­way, a coun­try with sin­gle-payer uni­ver­sal health care and free col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. Why would any­one want to leave Nor­way for the U.S.?”

The more-lib­eral im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies of 1965 still form the scaf­fold­ing of the U.S. le­gal im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem, ush­er­ing in – if un­in­ten­tion­ally – an Amer­ica that grows less white ev­ery year. For years now, Asians, Africans and His­pan­ics have ac­counted for an ex­pand­ing pro­por­tion of the coun­try’s visas.

But first came 1924, when the peo­ple in charge spoke openly of rank­ing im­mi­grants of cer­tain ori­gins above oth­ers. That was the year Congress passed an im­mi­gra­tion over­haul that set strict quo­tas de­signed to en­cour­age im­mi­grants from Western Europe, block all but a few from South­ern and Eastern Europe and bar those from Asia. Over­all im­mi­gra­tion lev­els were slashed. The racial the­o­ries at play in the leg­is­la­tion, wrote the im­mi­gra­tion his­to­rian Roger Daniels, would later be­come the first draft of “the of­fi­cial ide­ol­ogy of Nazi Ger­many.”

Un­der the 1924 law, the num­ber of visas given to each coun­try could not ex­ceed an­nual quo­tas based on the num­ber of peo­ple from that coun­try who were liv­ing in the United States as of the 1890 cen­sus, be­fore the flow of new Amer­i­cans had be­gun to tilt away from Western Euro­pean coun­tries.

The United States, the law’s sup­port­ers said, could now dis­pense with the “melt­ing pot.” The only new im­mi­grants who would be al­lowed to come would al­ready look, act and speak like the Amer­i­cans al­ready here.

“Each year’s im­mi­gra­tion should so far as pos­si­ble be a minia­ture Amer­ica, re­sem­bling in na­tional ori­gins the per­sons who are al­ready set­tled in our coun­try,” the bill’s chief au­thor, Sen. David A. Reed of Penn­syl­va­nia, wrote in the New York Times on April 27, 1924.

English­men and Ger­mans were wel­come; Ital­ians and Jews, not so much. No Asians need ap­ply. (In­ci­den­tally, Nor­way was also sub­ject to a quota, though it was given sig­nif­i­cantly more slots than coun­tries in­clud­ing Greece, Spain, Turkey and Hun­gary.)

By 1965, Congress had re­pealed the per-coun­try quo­tas, re­plac­ing them with a sys­tem that em­pha­sized new im­mi­grants’ fam­ily ties to Amer­i­can cit­i­zens and res­i­dents and, to a lesser de­gree, the skills they brought. Un­der the frame­work es­tab­lished then, peo­ple al­ready ad­mit­ted to the United States can spon­sor their rel­a­tives over­seas through the process Trump calls “chain mi­gra­tion.” Oth­ers now come for jobs, for study, as refugees or through the di­ver­sity visa lot­tery, a pro­gram put in place in 1990 and in­tended for na­tion­al­i­ties that are un­der­rep­re­sented in the nor­mal im­mi­gra­tion stream.

Con­ser­va­tive mem­bers of Congress, in­clud­ing some Democrats, had fought to in­clude the fam­ily-based pref­er­ences for rel­a­tives of peo­ple liv­ing in the coun­try, be­liev­ing, ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans, that more white Euro­peans were likely to come that way. But fewer Euro­peans, and far more Latin Amer­i­cans and Asians, knocked on the door.

In the 2016 fis­cal year, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment sta­tis­tics, there were about 98,000 peo­ple from Europe who be­came law­ful per­ma­nent res­i­dents. More than four times as many, 443,000, came from Asia, and half a mil­lion from North, South and Cen­tral Amer­ica and the Caribbean. Africa sent an­other 111,000. Over­all, nearly 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple ob­tained green cards that year, com­pared with about 700,000 in all the years from 1930 to 1939 com­bined.

In an Oc­to­ber 2015 ra­dio in­ter­view with Stephen K. Ban­non, who would be­come Trump’s chief strate­gist, Sen. Jeff Ses­sions of Alabama, who would be­come at­tor­ney gen­eral, pointed out that the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion was head­ing to­ward a his­tor­i­cally high pro­por­tion of for­eign-born Amer­i­cans.

“When the num­bers reached about this high in 1924, the pres­i­dent and Congress changed the pol­icy, and it slowed down im­mi­gra­tion sig­nif­i­cantly,” Ses­sions said. Those who came to the United States through the 1924 quo­tas as­sim­i­lated into the coun­try and helped cre­ate “re­ally the solid mid­dle class of Amer­ica,” he con­tin­ued.

But, he said, “We passed a law that went far be­yond what any­body re­al­ized in 1965, and we’re on a path now to surge far past what the sit­u­a­tion was in 1924.”

Ses­sions and Trump have called re­peat­edly for end­ing chain mi­gra­tion and the di­ver­sity visa lot­tery.

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