If you want to understand what the Trump White House would accomplish with its latest immigration proposals, consider this chart.
Nearly six in ten immigrants in the United States come from just ten nations, none of which are white European countries. In 2015, moreover, fully one-third of the 1.38 million new immigrants to the United States came from just three nations: India (179,800), China (143,200), and Mexico (139,400).
If you are, well, not a racist, these data points are an interesting window into a diversifying nation. As recently as 1990, the United States still drew a significant chunk of its new immigrants from nations such as Italy, Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In 1960, five years before a landmark immigrant bill transformed the face of American immigrants, nearly half of all newcomers to the United States arrived from just six European countries.
But if you are one of the white nationalist groups whose priorities animate the Trump White House’s immigration proposals, the chart displayed above represents a calamity. Every year, hundreds of thousands of non-white people are pouring into the country. Many of them will eventually become citizens. Many more will have children on American soil who, through the magic of the Fourteenth Amendment, become citizens at birth.
The complexion of America is changing. And the Trump White House has a plan to fix that.
The Trump White House’s latest immigration proposal, as Vox’s Dara Lind writes, pits an especially sympathetic group of current immigrants against millions of likely future immigrants. The plan matches cuts to family reunification visas and diversity visas — both high priorities for white nationalist groups — with legal status for Dreamers, a cohort of about 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.
The idea is to offer legal status for this group, a high priority for Democrats, in return for permanent changes to our immigration system that will fundamentally alter who gets to come into the country. It’s a plan that, in the long run, will make the United States much whiter than it otherwise will become.
And it is also a plan that is likely to play a starring role in Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening. That address is being written by Stephen Miller, the hardline anti-immigrant adviser that even some Republican senators blame for making good faith negotiations over immigration impossible.
The Klanish history of American immigration law
Men like Miller are hardly newcomers to America’s immigration debate. Even after the Civil War ended slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment was supposed to eliminate policies driven by racism, nineteenth century immigration policy was marred by laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act — which did more or less what its name suggests. Then, the 1920s saw the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
Originally formed by former Confederate officers after their defeat by Union forces, the Klan quickly morphed into a terrorist organization seeking to restore white supremacy.
The second version of the Klan was at once more ambitious and more formal. As NYU historian Linda Gordon recounts in The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, it enjoyed millions of supporters and embraced an agenda much broader than its post-Civil War counterpart. It also hated Jews, whom it perceived as cosmopolitan elites, and blamed political corruption on (primarily Irish and Italian) Catholics.
The Klan drew sharp lines between desirable white people, whom it described as “Nordic,” and undesirable non-“Nordic” white immigrants. One influential 1916 text even recommended that “unfavorable races” such as Italians and Jews “be kept segregated in ghettos.”
At the height of its power, the Klan wrote its racist views into America’s immigration law.
America, according to Sen. David Reed of Pennsylvania, needed a law to “maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain on our people and thereby to stabilize the ethnic composition of the population.” To achieve this goal, he partnered with Klansman and Congressman Albert Johnson to enact the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. This act, in Professor Gordon’s words, “ensconced into law the Klan’s hierarchy of desirable and undesirable ‘races’ by assigning quotas for immigrants in proportion to the ethnicity of those already in the United States in 1890.”
The practical impact of the law was to ensure that 70 percent of all immigration slots to the United States were allocated to three nations — the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany. Klan Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans took credit for this bill becoming law.
The end of the KKK immigration regime
The KKK’s immigration proposal remained law for more than four decades, ensuring that white people would continue to dominate American society for most of the twentieth century. Indeed, the United States did not abolish its preferences for white immigrants until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
The 1965 act repealed Johnson-Reed’s focus on nation of origin and replaced it with a primary focus on keeping families together. Initially, it capped immigration visas at 170,000 for the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 for the Western Hemisphere, but the spouses, minor children, and parents of adult American citizens were exempted from these caps. More distant relatives, such as brothers and sisters, also enjoy some preferential treatment, though they are subject to the immigration caps. Certain relatives of lawful permanent residents also enjoy preferential treatment.
Ironically, according to the Migration Policy Institute, these family-based preferences were initially introduced by lawmakers seeking to “preserve the country’s predominantly Anglo-Saxon, European base.” At least initially, the universe of American citizens who still had close family members living aboard consisted predominantly of white people admitted under the Klan’s immigration law.
Yet as more and more non-white immigrants were allowed to enter the country and become citizens, their family members were also able to take advantage of family visas. Today, with the majority of new immigrants arriving from predominantly non-white nations, the universe of people eligible for family visas looks very unlike Stephen Miller.
Which brings us back to Trump’s immigration proposal.
One of the White House’s core proposals is to limit “family sponsorships to spouses and minor children only,” a proposal that would strip away hundreds of thousands of foreign-born individuals’ best shot to immigrate to the United States. The great irony of the 1965 act is that a provision inserted by conservative congressmen seeking to enhance America’s white complexion now predominantly benefits immigrants from nations like India, China, and Mexico — and Trump’s proposal would eliminate those benefits for all but the very closest relatives of U.S. immigrants.
Additionally, Trump proposes eliminating the so-called “visa lottery,” a program that allows up to 50,000 individuals from nations underrepresented in the U.S. population to immigrate. This diversity visa program disproportionately benefits African immigrants, a population that tends to be especially highly educated.
In the short term, Trump would reallocate some of these diversity visa slots to process the backlog of individuals who have already applied for family visas. Once that backlog is processed, however, the White House’s outline of its proposal suggests that the diversity slots will be eliminated.
The long-term impact of these changes would likely be hundreds of thousands fewer immigrants from the sort of nations that white nationalists do not approve of — a permanent restructuring of American immigration, in return for a one-time fix for a sympathetic bloc of immigrants within the United States.
That’s a hell of a deal for people like Stephen Miller. And it looks a whole lot like the immigration policies from America’s past.