The De­brief

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - KAREN TUMULTY karen.tumulty@wash­ Alice Crites con­trib­uted to this re­port.

In­sults im­ply Trump wants a re­turn to shame­ful pe­ri­ods in his­tory.

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.”

“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 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, 18,439.

That sys­tem re­mained in place un­til 1965, when Lyn­don B. John­son, as part of his Great So­ci­ety ini­tia­tive, per­suaded 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.”

Miller said: “The poem that you’re re­fer­ring to was added later. It’s not ac­tu­ally part of the Statue of Lib­erty.”

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 whom it should wel­come.

“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.”

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