President Donald Trump’s position on immigration is blatantly unpatriotic. Through his comments and actions as a candidate and president, we know he is no fan of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere. Many Trump supporters say it’s only illegal immigration that the president is opposed to, but the fact is that the president’s war against legal immigration is equally, if not more fervent than his efforts against illegal immigration.
President Trump has proposed to cut legal immigration in half by weakening the family ties clause of our immigration system that allows legal residents to sponsor family members. He wants to limit naturalization for legal immigrants if they have ever used government welfare programs. He has also cut the number of green cards we grant and is lessening the number of asylum seekers we accept. And let’s not forget his leaked comments that he doesn’t want people — legal or illegal — from “shithole” countries each of which was poor and brown immigrating here. Why are Trump’s immigration policies unpatriotic?
In one of former President Ronald Reagan’s last televised addresses as president, he explained why he felt America was an exceptional country: “America represents something universal in the human spirit … Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.” Reagan’s patriotism is rooted in the belief that American values are universal. That is, anyone should be able to become an American because the American identity is rooted in its values.
This is called civic nationalism, where the national identity is based on shared values rather than a shared perceptible identity. Late Sen. John McCain echoed Reagan’s sentiment last May, when he said that you don’t even need to know English to be fully American, you only need to have American values. What are these values? I would say they are they are pretty clearly delineated in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. They are a capacious set of values rooted in the basic liberal tradition of free speech, individual rights and due process. These values can incorporate a wide variety of political positions, ideologies, religions and cultures.
The vast majority of countries in the world are nation-states with an ethnic, religious or hegemonic cultural identity that serves as the basis of their national identity. Nation-states like China, Italy or India have commonly perceived shared traits, like traditions, religious beliefs or histories that many citizens associate with their national identity. If you lie outside these common traits, integrating as a fully equal citizen in social and even sometimes legal terms can be hard. The extent of exclusivity to the national identities of the nation-states of the world varies, but I would argue none come close to the level of inclusivity the American identity has had in recent history. We grew up calling America a nation of immigrants for a reason.
But it was only in 1965, after the Civil Rights movement had left its mark, that America liberalized its immigration policy and became the country Reagan and McCain praised. From 1924 to 1965, America closed its doors with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. An ethnic and racial hierarchy was codified in a quota system that essentially only let Northern Europeans enter.
Back then, xenophobia was directed toward not only non-European groups, but also European groups perceived as threatening to the Anglo-American character of America. Italians, Jews, Irish, and at one point even Germans, threatened the homogeneity of the dominant culture. Italians, the Irish and the Jews were considered non-white races and faced widespread discrimination. Eventually, all of these groups integrated into the dominant culture, a process which changed the immigrant groups but also changed the country for the better. America, despite the incessant plague of xenophobia, has continually been shaped by immigrants.
Since 1965, after the repeal of the Immigration Act of 1924, America’s demographics have begun to unsurprisingly change drastically. By 2065, so long as current rate of immigration remains constant, 46 percent of America will be white creating a majority-minority nation. When Trump said he doesn’t want people from shithole countries, he was harkening back to the tradition of xenophobia that resulted in the 1924 act. In fact, Attorney General Jeff Sessions actually cited the Immigration Act of 1924 as a model for current immigration policy in an interview with Breitbart News Network.
The fear that immigrants perceived as different cannot integrate into American society is clearly not new. And it is as wrong now as it was wrong in 1924. The implicit argument today that non-European immigrants carry an immutable cultural alienness that renders them unable to integrate into American society is incorrect. Yet, Hispanic immigrants, most often the target of anti-immigration rhetoric, are integrating into American society just as European immigrants have integrated in the past. Like President Reagan said, anyone can become American because anyone can live by the values of liberty and justice and strive to uphold these values when we all seem to be falling short.
Economic arguments against immigration similarly fall short of the facts and succumb to misperceptions. Immigrants contribute to the economy rather than slow it down. Immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to start a business and contribute a net increase to the living standards of the average American. The impetus against immigration is largely a visceral fear that someone who looks different or practices a different religion can’t have the same values or way of life. But isn’t the true testament to the strength of our values the fact that we believe anyone can live by them?
Aaron Baker can be reached at email@example.com