On August 2, Donald Trump threw his support behind a proposal by two Republican Senators to reduce legal immigration to the United States by half.
Trump wants to: 1) limit the types of family members of American citizens and legal residents that can be brought to the US to primarily spouses and minor children, 2) eliminate the international diversity visa lottery, and 3) limit the number of annual refugee admissions. The proposed bill would also implement a “merit-based” system that grades possible immigrants based on their skills and ability to speak English.
In announcing the policy, White House spokesperson Stephen Miller claimed that these changes are necessary to “protect US workers, protect US taxpayers, and protect the US economy.”
But the real motivation is about the long term cultural and political implications of America’s changing demographics. The true goal is to drastically reduce immigration by low-income and minority workers, especially from Latin America and Asia, and to increase immigration by wealthier, mostly White European workers.
Sadly, this effort, with its racist undertones, finds echoes in our history. One of the most shameful chapters in that history occurred when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That law was implemented because, much like Latino workers today, Chinese workers were being blamed for taking the jobs of American-born workers and bringing down wages. The fear by some that places like California would be “overrun” by non-Europeans with a very different culture was also a driving force.
The official preference for White immigrants continued well into the 20th century. Before 1965, U.S. law severely restricted immigration from most Asian and Pacific Island countries and immigration from Latin American countries was subject to strict quotas. Then Congress adopted a system based on family reunification, which allowed US citizens to sponsor, not just their immediate families but their extended ones and applied a similar standard to refugees.
Over the last several decades these policies lead to a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. As a result, the share of the US population that is Latino and Asian has continued to rise. And, while the percentage of Latinos and Asians who are registered to vote and do vote still lags behind their respective shares of the US population, these groups are becoming a larger and larger percentage of the electorate.
These trends have not gone unnoticed in Republican or Democratic circles. It is a common refrain in politics today that “demography is destiny,” and, in recent years, Democrats have been counting (perhaps too much) on the increasing ethnic diversity of our nation to deliver them victories. After all, 66% of Latino voters and a similar percentage of API voters voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Younger ethnic voters are even more likely to support a Democratic candidate. For Republicans, it is imperative to reverse these trends. Change our immigrants, change America seems to be their mission. That the rhetoric around this approach appeals to White nationalists in the GOP base is a not insignificant incentive.
There is an important reason to oppose these Republican proposals. Throughout our history, people fleeing persecution, famine, war, and other calamities have found refuge in the United States. Each of them has brought his or her unique talents and contributed to the rich diverse culture that is the real America. To refuse so many that refuge now would be to abandon them to terrible fates and deprive our nation of their unique perspectives.
LGBTQ people, in particular, would be severely affected. They are discriminated against, persecuted, and often murdered in many countries throughout the world and many are desperately trying to come here. Transgender people are at particular risk for violence, often sanctioned or even carried out by their own governments. America is not perfect of course. But it is a lifeline and a hope for them. Unless they have spouses here, or are the children of current US residents, their hopes would be forever dashed.
Conventional wisdom says these proposals do not have enough support in Congress to become law anytime soon. But similar proposals have long been a staple of conservative politics—and the Republican Congress is facing increasing pressure to fulfill promises to its base. The White House may also use its power to interpret and implement immigration policy under current law or issue additional executive orders. So speaking out, being vigilant, and pressuring members of Congress to reject these proposals is desperately needed.
The very nature of who we are—a compassionate nation or a selfish nation—is at stake.
Lester F. Aponte is a lawyer and an activist. He is a founding member of the Latino Equality Alliance (LEA), and was recently elected President of the Stonewall Democratic Club.