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The Fight for a White America

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Originally published y  Slate

President Trump has proposed nothing less than a vast overhaul of the country’s immigration policy, seeking an end to the diversity visa lottery and family sponsorship programs in favor of a system that would privilege immigrants from mostly white countries. “It is time to begin moving towards a merit-based immigration system,” Trump proudly proclaimed to a crowd of cheering Republicans in his first State of the Union on Tuesday night, “one that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society, and who will love and respect our country.”

The president and his allies claim such an immigration policy would promote cohesion and unity among Americans “and finally bring our immigration system into the 21st century.” Far from forward-facing, however, the president’s policies evoke the beginning of the 20thcentury, when war abroad and opportunity at home brought waves of immigrants to the United States, from Italians, Polish, and Russians to Chinese and Japanese. Their arrival sparked a backlash from those who feared what these newcomers might mean for white supremacy and the privileged position of white, Anglo-Saxon Americans. Those fears coalesced into a movement for “American homogeneity,” and a drive to achieve it by closing off America’s borders to all but a select group of immigrants. This culminated in 1924 with the Johnson-Reed Act, which sharply restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and all but banned it from much of Asia.

Members of the Trump administration have praised the Johnson-Reed Act for its severe restrictions on who could enter the country, and the act’s history helps illuminate what exactly Trump means when he says he wants to put “America first.”

The cohesion Trump espouses isn’t national or ideological. It is racial. The fight over immigration isn’t between two camps who value the contributions of immigrants and simply quibble over the mix and composition of entrants to the United States. It is between a camp that values immigrants and seeks to protect the broader American tradition of inclusion, and one that rejects this openness in favor of a darker legacy of exclusion. And in the current moment, it is the restrictionists who are the loudest and most influential voices, and their concerns are driving the terms of the debate.

At the heart of the nativist idea is a fear of foreign influence, that some force originating abroad threatens to undermine the bonds that hold America together. What critics condemned as “Know Nothing-ism” in the 19th century, adherents called Americanism. “The grand work of the American party,” said one nativist journal in 1855, “is the principle of nationality … we must do something to protect and vindicate it. If we do not, it will be destroyed.”

Immigration policy is inextricably tied to our nation’s self-identity. What we choose to do reflects the traditions we seek to uphold. In the 1920s, most Americans wanted a more homogenous country, and they chose accordingly. Forty years later, in the midst of the civil rights revolution and a powerful ethos of inclusion, Americans reversed course, opening our borders to millions of people from across the globe. In this moment, we have two options. We can once again take the path that wants to keep “America for Americans,” and which inevitably casts American-ness in ways circumscribed by race, origin, and religion. Or we could try to realize our cosmopolitan faith, that tradition of universalism which elevates the egalitarian ideals of the Founding, and which seeks to define our diversity of origins as a powerful strength, not a weakness to overcome.
Read more:https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/02/the-nativist-blueprint-for-trumps-immigration-plan.html

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