Our racist immigration policy now (and then)

Really liked Jamelle Bouie’s most recent column on the clearly racism decision on limiting immigration from Nigeria.  Sadly, with everything else, this issue is almost completely off the radar.  Bouie:

It’s happening a little bit out of public consciousness — swamped by impeachment, the coronavirus and the Democratic presidential race — but on Friday President Trump announced further restrictions on immigration and foreign entry to the United States. Citing security concerns, the administration has slammed the door on immigrants from the African nations of Sudan, Tanzania and Eritrea, as well as Myanmar in Southeast Asia and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. These countries, which have large Muslim populations, join seven others on the president’s ever-developing travel ban.

There’s one other country on the expanded list — Nigeria. Home to more than 200 million of Africa’s 1.2 billion people, Nigeria has the largest economy on the continent and has worked with the American military on joint operations. But given an “elevated risk and threat environment in the country,” administration officials say there’s a chance Nigeria could become a vector for terrorists who want to enter the United States. Nigeria’s government has long struggled with the Islamist group Boko Haram, which is responsible for multiple kidnappings and dozens of attacks that amount to mass slaughter.

But there’s little to no evidence that this group is a threat to Americans, nor is there any history of Nigerian terrorism on American soil. From 1975 to 2015, according to an analysis from the libertarian Cato Institute, just one Nigerian national was implicated in a terrorist attack against the United States. And, it should be said, the administration has not banned all entry from Nigeria — only applications for permanent residence. Tourists can still visit America, an odd loophole if the White House is actually worried about terrorism.

In 2017, The New York Times reported on a meeting between Trump and several members of his cabinet in which he raged against foreign visitors to the United States. Citing a memo from Stephen Miller, the president’s chief immigration hard-liner, Trump complained about the pending arrival of thousands of people from Muslim and predominantly African nations. They “all have AIDS,” Trump reportedly said, about immigrants from Haiti. As for Nigerians? Once they saw America, they would never “go back to their huts.” [emphases mine]

All of this was separate from the president’s remarks on what he famously called “shithole countries” — those came the next year, when he found a fresh way to articulate his racist vision of immigration policy, where white Europeans are welcome and nonwhites are not.

Which is to say that it does not matter that Nigeria isn’t much of a national security threat or that Nigerians are among the most successful immigrants to the United States, surpassing native-born Americans in income and educational attainment. What matters is that they’re black and African and, for Trump, at the bottom of a racial hierarchy.

Alas, this is nothing new at all in American politics.  One of the things I particularly enjoyed learning about in Jill Lepore’s tremendous These Truths was our ugly, ugly history of immigration policy for much of the 20th century.  Bouie gives a nice summary of this deplorable history:

I’ve written before about the 1924 Immigration Act, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, which codified a decade’s worth of nativist hysteria into law. It followed the Immigration Act of 1917, which imposed literacy tests on new immigrations and barred immigration from the Asia-Pacific region, and the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which established the first per-country percentage limits on the number of immigrants to the United States. The 1924 act was the harshest. It was also the most far-reaching. Meant to reduce immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, it also defined the American nation in explicitly racial terms.

The quota system established by Johnson-Reed, the historian Mae Ngai writes, “subtracted from the total United States population all blacks and mulattoes, eliding the difference between the ‘descendants of slave immigrants’ and the descendants of free Negroes and voluntary immigrants from Africa. It also discounted all Chinese, Japanese and South Asians as persons ‘ineligible to citizenship,’ including descendants of such people with American citizenship by native birth.”…

Trump is almost certainly ignorant of the Johnson-Reed Act (Stephen Miller, on the other hand, is not). But he’s channeling the impulse of that law — the attempt to cast the United States as a white nation, off-limits to those who don’t fit his preferred racial type. And with the Supreme Court’s blessing (granted to the revised version of the original travel ban), he’s doing just that: using his immigration policy to resurrect and reconstitute the exclusions of the early 20th century.

Although immigration policy deals with the external boundaries of the United States, the elevation of whiteness has internal consequences as well. Not because the president intends to distribute benefits and favors on the basis of race — although there are elements of that in his administration’s behavior — but because it sends a larger signal about who matters in this society. Every time Trump and other members of his administration make the decision to stratify and racialize, they are also making a statement about who receives a voice and who deserves respect.

Doesn’t matter how many Black people he trots out as props during the SOTU, the man, and far more importantly, his policies, are clearly racist.

On contrition

As you’ve probably noticed, I sure do love Frank Bruni’s newsletter.  I really liked this today on Trump’s imminent acquital.  Say what you will about whether Clinton should have been impeached or not, he at least acknowledged wrongdoing.  This year, we’ve got Susan Collins and friends beclowning themselves pretending that Trump will learn from impeachment.  That’s more fantastical than orcs and magic rings.  Bruni:

“I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people.”

That was Bill Clinton, the second president in American history to be impeached, in 1999 after he was acquitted by the Senate. Trump, the third president in American history to be impeached, will be acquitted later today. I do not expect any apology from him.

Clinton accepted that he’d acted badly but argued that his deeds didn’t warrant either his impeachment or his removal from office. Trump maintains that he acted impeccably. The phone call in which he tried to pressure the president of Ukraine to smear his political rivals was “perfect.”

Whatever Trump’s actual belief, his strategy for coming out on top and remaining there — in business, in politics, in life — is never to admit any fault, never to concede any flaw, never to show any weakness, never to give an inch until it’s absolutely necessary and then to insist that he hasn’t done anything of the kind. An overwhelming majority of his lies are in the service of that M.O.

And so, when he responds to his Senate acquittal, it won’t be with any acknowledgment of wrongdoing. He’s more likely to bellow that he has been mistreated and to rage.

Have at it, President Trump. But while his irrational anger, overblown resentments, lidless mendacity and bantam strut have brought him power, they’re not the makings of real contentment. They’re not the ingredients for peace.

I notice that in the people around me. I notice that in myself. I’m the least anxious when I’ve behaved the most humbly. I’m calmest when I’m kindest.

And the words “I’m sorry,” so often called for but too seldom said, aren’t a mortification or a defeat. They’re the definition of integrity. And they’re the gateway to grace.

Honestly, Trump always makes me think of the Fonz, who actually does much better on this than Trump.


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