All reasonable Americans agree that we need a rational, equitable, and enforceable immigration system. But in 1965 we replaced an explicitly racist law with one that mindlessly imposed a 20,000 person immigration limit on countries big and small, near and far. (The limit on Western Hemisphere countries didn’t take effect until 1976.) There is no better reminder that equality does not always amount to equity than the fact that Monaco (pop. 39,000) and Mexico (pop. 128 million) each have the same quota. That didn’t bother the many US industries that depend on cheap immigrant labor, because hiring immigrants without documents worked nicely for them. But a system that fosters a shadow economy with an extralegal workforce makes for terrible, corrosive policy.
Still, whatever the defects of our immigration laws and enforcement system, it makes no moral or political sense to punish children who had no choice about where they grew up and have no homeland to return to. The president’s claim that DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) led to gang violence in places like Los Angeles gets it exactly wrong: gang violence in Central America prompted kids to flee to the border. They were, by any reasonable definition, refugees, but we repelled them. If any got through and joined gangs, they would receive no protection from DACA.
The idea that young immigrants are displacing Americans from jobs also makes no sense: during the period the president refers to the economy was swiftly recovering and in the closing days of the Obama Administration we surpassed full employment, typically defined as 95 percent of the active workforce. (The remaining 5 percent gives the economy room for job-seekers to find openings and employers to find qualified applicants.)
There’s nothing new in these ploys. Throughout American history, wealthy elites have played working class whites for suckers by pitting them against immigrants or freed blacks. In the mid-nineteenth century, a secret society informally called the Know Nothings rose on a groundswell of nativist hate. Led by a pugnacious, conspiracy-theory-spinning New Yorker (sound familiar?), the Know Nothings spewed hate for immigrants, hate for women’s rights, and above all, hate for Catholics. Standing in for today’s Muslims, Catholics were branded “liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats,” and, oh yes, they were accused of being rapists as well.
The Know Nothings’ nativist rants proved convenient to an emerging class of “Robber Barons”—wealthy new elites who profited from industrialization and practiced “Social Darwinism” by recruiting wave after wave of immigrants, as well as former slaves from the South and then fomenting clashes with white workers.
While Trump plays to his base, the superrich are doing it again, planning big tax cuts for themselves while stripping protections, programs, and parks from ordinary Americans. Why struggling white people think that white nationalism now will benefit anyone except Trump and his rich cronies baffles me. Why any Republicans want their party to become the new Know Nothings mystifies me. Why anyone wants the United States of America to be known for deporting young people who’ve done nothing wrong sickens me.