“I love people who come in legally,” Donald Trump told a conservative gathering during the campaign, pivoting from a series of horror stories about ruthless foreigners murdering innocent Americans in cold blood. At another campaign event, he said of those who migrated to the U.S. through legal channels, “we’re going to take them in and we’re going to cherish them.”
A year later, as part of what the Los Angeles Times described as a “renewed emphasis” on “appeal[ing] to the president’s core supporters,” Trump announced he’s backing a proposal to “slash” the number of legal immigrants in the United States. This comes as immigration to the U.S. – both legal and otherwise – is already way down, at least in part because of the wave of xenophobic acts of hate Trump’s campaign inspired and the message his ham-fisted travel ban sent to the rest of the world.
Trump has embraced a dumb, self-destructive policy that would likely cause a serious hit to the economy if enacted, but there’s one upside to his regime’s unorthodox attacks on legal immigration: We should thank this crew for making it clear that animosity toward immigrants is, and always has been, grounded in petty cultural resentments and largely unfounded fears of economic competition, rather than in some abstract reverence for the rule of law.
Because we fancy ourselves a nation of immigrants, immigration restrictionists take great pains to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. Even if their own grandparents came here from the old country, they’ll insist they were different because they came here legally. Every discussion of the topic features some yahoo asking, “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?”
It’s true that, for most of our history, we had no limits on immigration. It wasn’t until the 1880s that the first restrictions were put in place with the Chinese Exclusion Act and laws barring entry to some contract workers. In 1917, the U.S. barred many Asians from entering the country and started requiring literacy tests for new arrivals. In the 1920s, the first widespread limits were put into place, with a quota system that was designed in large part to stem the influx of Eastern European Jews and Southern Italians.
If your great-great-grandparents came to this country from somewhere in Europe before then, and seemed healthy, they were in. But what the restrictionists’ omit from their history is that those migrants probably would have made their way here illegally if they had to – after all, a good chunk of them were fleeing famine or war or religious persecution. And just as importantly, despite the fact that their forebearers came here legally, they often faced distrust and hostility from the “real Americans” of the day, not unlike undocumented immigrants do today.
In this nation of immigrants, there’s always been a vocal minority who have despised newcomers and argued for closing the door behind them. Until fairly recently, they didn’t bother to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. Their hostility was centered around the supposed moral and cultural failings of various newcomers. “The fear of people who somehow pollute American culture—this fear goes back to [Thomas] Jefferson,” said Alan Kraut, a historian at American University, in an interview with The Atlantic. “Jefferson worried that migrants to the United States would not appreciate democratic institutions and we would degenerate into a society that would seek a monarch.”
The specifics varied as different groups arrived in later years. The Irish were indolent drunks, the Italians were thugs; both were derided as “papists” who were loyal first and foremost to Rome. Once established, the Irish turned around and condemned Eastern European migrants as clumsy, uneducated “Bohemians.” And this thread continues to John Tanton, the father of the modern anti-immigration movement, who fretted about whether “minorities” “can run an advanced society,” and who warned that, “if through mass migration, the culture of the homeland is transplanted from Latin America to California, then my guess is we will see the same degree of success with governmental and social institutions that we have seen in Latin America.”
It was only as explicit attacks on other cultures became unacceptable in polite circles that the rule of law took front-and-center in the debate, and the anti-immigration set started talking about anarchy on the border and the chaos that inevitably follows when people let “illegals” off easy.
This was always rather transparent cover for their hostility toward foreigners. In one breath, restrictionists would claim that, like Trump, they “cherish” those who jumped through the necessary hoops to come here legally, and in the next they’d rail against being told to press 2 for Spanish. And in most cases, we’re talking about extremely minor “crimes” – entering the country illegally is a misdemeanor, and being here without papers is just a civil code violation, like a traffic ticket.
But it was a smart way to deflect charges of racism or xenophobia. Now, thanks to Trump – and his creepy white nationalist advisers like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller – going after legal immigration, that facade has fallen away. The next time someone claims to be concerned first and foremost about upholding the rule of law, you can ask them what part of “legal immigration” they don’t understand.