By Jen Kirby
A historian helps explain how the president’s rhetoric reaches back to the time of racial immigration quotas.
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” the president of the United States reportedly said during a meeting with lawmakers over a potential immigration deal, referring to people from Haiti and African countries. Instead, he complained, the US should be accepting people from places such as Norway.
Trump unconvincingly denied his remarks on Friday, but the White House did not rebut making the “shithole” remarks outright, instead spinning it as Trump’s characteristic toughness on immigration.
“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement to Jim Sciutto of CNN on Thursday. The White House went on to say Trump wants immigrants who can “contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.”
Vox reached out to Ana Minian, an assistant professor of history at Stanford University, and author of the forthcoming book Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration, to explain Trump’s comments. She suggested they are echoes of America’s national origins quotas for immigrants decades ago. “Part of what it means to say ‘we don’t want people from these countries,’” Minian said, “is moving back to that very racist law that existed.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What does it mean that the president is using this kind of language about immigrants?
Immigration laws are one of the ways in which we make the national body. It’s one of the ways in which we decide, as a country, who we want here and who we don’t. Immigration and births are the way to build a population.
What he [Trump] said was basically a form of eugenics — in which he’s saying, ‘this is the population we want, people from places like Norway.’ White people. We don’t want people from African countries or from Haiti. That’s what’s really symbolic here.
What is also an important takeaway out of this message from Trump is that it takes us back to an earlier period, 1924, when the National Origins Act passed. Part of what it did was — and it had been done before — but part of what that reinforced is that the US wanted people from certain countries and not from others.
It gave a percentage of allowances for people to come, giving preference to northern Europe, discriminating against southern and eastern Europe, and completely barring immigration from Asia. There were a few exceptions, but Asian immigration was for the most part, barred.
In 1965, we moved away from this National Origins Act, and part of what it means to say ‘we don’t want people from these countries’ is moving back to that very racist law that existed.
Trump seems to wholly miss the point about why people, regardless of country of origin, immigrate. For example, economic opportunity. Or is it naive to try to parse this out, and should we just see this as pure racism?
I just want to amend part of what you said slightly. You said that people come for opportunity, and while that’s absolutely true, it’s not just people coming out of places that are disconnected from the United States, or from places to which immigrants go to or where migrants go to.
For example, there has been a lot of economic exploitation of many of the countries from which migrants leave. Violence is not something that is innate to those areas, but that has happened over time — often impulsed by the West, by colonization.
And there has been, for example, economic investments — multinational corporations coming to these places, displacing people from their land. So of course they move. And the movement is very complicated — but it’s not just about people arriving to a place. It’s also about the displacement and the connections that have happened beforehand, often propelled by places like the United States.
Why do you think this disconnect exists between the realities of immigration and how it’s being approached by this administration?
You were asking me before if it’s just racism. I think racism is a big part of it, but I don’t think it’s just plain racism. I think it’s how racism has been connected with immigration to stoke nativist fears. So, fears of unemployment, fears that our culture will change, fears that disease is coming. AIDS, for example, with Haiti. All these fears are stoked upon through immigration. So is it racism? Yes. But it’s a racism that is very much attached to the fears that people already have.
For example, if there’s unemployment — or even when unemployment isn’t that high — we can say, ‘look, if we allow immigrants to come, you will lose your jobs,’ or ‘you’re not advancing because there are immigrants.’ When actually, the reasons why the economy is stagnant or why people can’t advance and move to better jobs are much more complicated, and they’re around structural economic changes, not about the people who are taking these jobs.
The National Origins quota, which you mentioned, proves that it’s not necessarily new to America to keep out “the other,” so to speak, though we reformed the system in 1965 — more than 50 years ago. What is the significance, historically, of the president of the United States making such comments in 2018? Is this an outlier, a blip — and far apart from where most Americans now stand? Is this a sign that we’re taking a step backwards?
I think it’s both things. On the one hand, I think rhetorically, we have definitely moved away from this rhetoric after 1965. That there were countries that were just to be barred, is something that is not really heard of after 1965. People were extremely proud of this idea that we were now not a racist country. At least in rhetoric, we had …read more