Trump Brings 19th Century White Supremacy to 21st Century Immigration Policy
For years, President Trump and his fellow extremists tried to cloak their hardline anti-immigrant positions by claiming they’re all for legal immigration. It’s illegal immigration they have a problem with. His overtures to the good, deserving immigrants didn’t last long.
The president just put his weight behind a new Congressional proposal that would drastically cut the number of people who can legally immigrate to the United States and shift policy away from family-based immigration.
Trump’s team justified his action by scapegoating immigrants for the economic insecurity felt by U.S. natives. Presidential advisor Stephen Miller argued that by endorsing immigration restrictions, Trump “puts the needs of the working class ahead of the investor class.”
The RAISE Act draws its roots from unapologetically racist immigration laws from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For instance, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. Besides their explicit appeal to racism, supporters justified the law by feeding off the economic insecurity U.S. residents were feeling at the dawn of the Gilded Age. Instead of criminalizing employers who offered exploitative wages and jobs, policymakers opted to bar Chinese immigrants from entering the country because they were willing to work for pay far below the rates that U.S. residents would accept.
Congress expanded the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1924 to ban “Asiatics” (people from East Asia) and limit immigration from a host of other countries thought to contain undesirable elements by the white leaders of the time. The United States narrowed its borders for people wanting to emigrate from Eastern Europe (particularly Jewish immigrants), Southern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. It also decreased the ability of immigrants to reunite their families in the United States by limiting such reunifications to spouses, parents, and unmarried children.
While the 1924 act did not sport an openly racist name, some of its supporters were open about their racist agendas. Pennsylvania Sen. David Reed stated that the law was needed to “maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain on our people and thereby to stabilize the ethnic composition of the population.”
Again Congressional lawmakers justified the law by scapegoating immigrants as the source of U.S. workers’ economic fears. Senator Reed claimed that “Southern and Eastern Europeans (many of them Catholics and Jews), he believed, ‘arrive sick and starving and therefore less capable of contributing to the American economy, and unable to adapt to American culture.’”
At the same time, lawmakers ignored any need to hold businesses accountable for their role in oppressive conditions. After all, it was President Calvin Coolidge who signed the act, well known for his declaration that “the chief business of the American people is business and for making federal regulations on business “thin to the point of invisibility.”
Furthermore, these earlier immigration laws sought to blunt the attack from business interests by allowing certain professional and skilled classes of immigrants to come to the United States notwithstanding the overall harsh restrictions. A 1917 immigration law that extended the Chinese Exclusion Act to cover more countries and contained other immigration restrictions made an exception for lawyers, doctors, civil engineers, merchants, and others. It also required that immigrants pass a literacy test.
Americans finally came together to reject this nativism. In the 1960s Congress overturned the immigration quotas that explicitly tried to keep the United States as white as possible. The government prioritized reuniting families and helping refugees in immigration policies.
Fast forward to today, anti-immigrant lawmakers are peddling a new version of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The RAISE Act would slash the total number of immigrants legally permitted to come to the United States in part by strictly limiting the ability of people arriving here to reunite with their families. Like the earlier laws, the bill champions try to mollify business interests by accepting a limited number of favored immigrants who pass a literacy test, or, in their sponsors’ words, show “entrepreneurial initiative.”
Like their racist, bait and switch predecessors, RAISE Act proponents are not attacking the source of real economic dangers facing working people today. Their policymaking overlooks the corporate CEOs and their friends in elected office who are laying the groundwork to make workplaces even worse by robbing millions of people of overtime pay, taking away raises, gutting Medicaid and health care, and fighting minimum wage increases.
Economists from across the political spectrum have issued study after study demonstrating that immigration helps the U.S. economy and our communities, and debunking lies that immigration depresses American wages. Yet once again bill supporters scapegoat immigrants for causing economic insecurity, arguing that immigrants drive down wages for U.S. workers and serve as a drag on the economy. Backers of the RAISE Act are so desperate to fool people who are struggling economically to accept their lies, they’re utilizing a bill title commonly used for proposals to boost the minimum wage.
While White House aide Stephen Miller and RAISE Act sponsors haven’t gone on the record to vilify “the ethnic composition of the population” as the sponsors of earlier immigration bills did, their white supremacist agenda is clear. Indeed, as the Southern Poverty Law Center points out, the RAISE Act “reflect[s] the shameful agenda of nativists and white nationalists who fear the growing diversity of our country.”
Trump wants to tear apart our nation’s immigration laws, and in doing so, he would tear apart our families, our communities, and our values. By standing shoulder to shoulder, people of all stripes united together to reject Trump’s hateful Muslim Ban and his proposed wall. It is just as important for us to rise up against the RAISE Act.