The Trump administration’s new immigration proposal, which would reduce the number of legal immigrants that can enter the United States annually and abolish family reunification as the cornerstone of the immigration system, has been the fondest fantasy of a relatively little-known racist movement in business for more than four decades.
Aimed at maintaining the demographic predominance and cultural/linguistic monopoly of the fictitious “Anglo-Saxon” race, these new nativists focus on what they see as the root of the ethnic and cultural transformation underway in the United States since the late 1960s: the system for legal immigration and, especially, its cornerstone, family reunification.
While establishment Republicans thundered against “illegal” immigration, zealots like the Michigan physician John Tanton set their crosshairs on legal immigration and bilingualism. They saw a system of legal immigration heavily favoring family reunification inevitably leading to a Latinization of America through a process of “chain migration.”
Not only that, Latinos just breed faster. In a secret memo uncovered by a journalist, Tanton wrote to his xenophobic brethren that this would be the first time in history that “the men with their pants down” would beat the men with their pants up. Rarely have the sexual insecurities of dominant white males, one of the key sources of racism against blacks as well as Latinos, been so clearly and unselfconsciously stated.
While Tanton and his ilk were privately entertaining nightmare scenarios worthy of psychiatric analysis, publicly they denied any racism and displayed a flair for public relations in branding the various tentacles of their movement with such vaguely attractive and innocuous-sounding names as US English (no periods: subtext, US =English) and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
What Trump is now proposing has a long and ugly history harking back not only to the founding of US English and FAIR round 1980 but to the end of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth. Racism was the midwife of U.S. immigration policy. Until the last third of the nineteenth century, in an underpopulated country eager to fulfill its “Manifest Destiny” of settling and ruling the land from coast to coast and beyond, immigration was essentially open and little-controlled.
But after the frontier closed around mid-century, and as new immigrants from places outside northwestern Europe who spoke languages other than English began coming in increasing numbers, an immigration policy emerged based on openly racist foundations. Significantly, the first notable immigration law became known as the “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Thereafter, and for the next forty-plus years, exclusions followed upon exclusions, ever more radical and sweeping. The categories for exclusion reflect the times and are a reminder that the currently fashionable critique of “political correctness” is a call for a return to a time when there was license to denigrate and discriminate. One of the groups singled out for exclusion was, for instance, the “feeble minded.” Tragicomically, it turned out there was a disproportionate number of Jews among the feeble minded. Problem was, intelligence was tested via English, which almost none of the Jews knew!
This suggests the only feeble-minded ones in this picture were those who designed and used the test. But perhaps they were in fact too clever by half and saw that employing such a test would have, in their anti-Semitic lights, or rather their anti-Semitic darkness, the added bonus of keeping the Jews out.
This wanton misuse of science helped passage of a sweeping, discriminatory immigration law in 1924. And the tragedy is that when the Nazis began coming for the Jews a decade later, this country refused to grant them a refuge which would have amounted to a reprieve from certain death.
To be sure, racism against immigrants predates the establishment of immigration rules. The Irish were vilified and attacked and their Roman Catholic churches were burned to the ground starting in the 1850s. But these were unofficial actions, pure prejudice not grounded in law or policy, usually clandestine and illegal.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 marked the beginning of an era in which racism was deeply inscribed in immigration law and policy. It ultimately culminated in 1924 with a general immigration law intended to exclude Southern Europeans like Italians, Eastern Europeans like Jews and Poles and, eventually, all people from Asia and Africa, a huge portion of the world which was defined as a “barred zone.”
This racist immigration framework lasted for more than forty years until, in 1965, amid the civil rights movement and the struggle between the United States and the Soviets for the Third World—most of which was inconveniently included in the barred zone—a new immigration law was passed which abolished the racist system and made family reunification a keystone. Over the next almost fifty years, with ups and downs, racism generally receded in almost every area, not just immigration policy. With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, it seemed possible that a new, post-racial United States might be dawning. Alas.
Trump’s immigration proposal is not only racist by design, it is also cynical. The consensus is that the proposal will be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. Why would Trump be cruising for another bruising after the health care fiasco? To bare his fangs at his enemies, to satisfy the most hateful lusts which move the small core of racists and xenophobes to which his political base has been largely reduced.
The anxiety and anguish this latest Trumpian immigration plan has raised would be almost worth it to see the Donald again in the role he most disparages: Loser. But let’s not sit back and let the bill sink from its own weight. Expose its racist core and its cynical intent. Organize. Protest. Raise hell. Force Congress to drive a stake through the heart of this reborn vampire, then burn the corpse and bury it deep underground where the government disposes of nuclear waste.