Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Donald Trump has repeatedly said that he wants to replace this country’s immigration policies with a “merit-based” system.

His remarks last week shed light on what he means by merit-based.

President Trump grew frustrated with lawmakers Thursday in the Oval Office when they discussed protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, according to several people briefed on the meeting.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to these people, referring to countries mentioned by the lawmakers.

Trump then suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries such as Norway, whose prime minister he met with Wednesday.

The current controversy about those remarks is all about whether or not the president and his supporters will admit that he used the word “shithole.” Neither the statement released by the White House nor Trump’s tweets have even attempted to challenge the basic content of his remarks. As a matter of fact, they have defended them.

Most of us assume that a merit-based immigration system would be based on individual merit. But that is obviously not what Trump means by the term. The heart of his remarks last week were all about merit being a reference to country of origin, with those populated primarily by white people being the most desirable. That, my friends, is what constitutes racism—rather than simply the use of the word “shithole” to describe the national origin of immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa.

Here is how Adam Serwer put it:

The president’s focus on the nationality, rather than on the personal merits, of immigrants suggests what he means by “merit-based” immigration: Not accepting those immigrants who have mastered science or engineering or some other crucial skill, but instead a standard that finds white Scandinavians acceptable, while ruling out Haitians, Salvadorans, and Africans. The only “merits” here are accidents of birth and geography, owing to no individual accomplishment at all.

As Serwer points out, this wouldn’t be the first time the United States of America traveled down this dark hole when it comes to immigration policy. He quotes from an article written for The Atlantic by Francis Walker back in 1896, which reads very much like something you would hear today from Donald Trump or Stephen Miller. The one glaring difference is that Walker was talking about the “shithole” countries as defined at the turn of the century.

The “immigrants from southern Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Russia,” Walker lamented in The Atlantic, were “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” people who had “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government, such as belong to those who are descended from the tribes that met under the oak-trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chieftains.”

Much as Trump describes immigrants from “shithole” countries as a national security and criminal threat, Walker was saying the same thing back then.

The present situation is most menacing to our peace and political, safety. In all the social and industrial disorders of this country since 1877, the foreign elements have proved themselves the ready tools of demagogues in defying the law, in destroying property, and in working violence.”

The result of sentiments expressed by people like Walker was the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 (sometimes referred to as the “National Origins Act”), which Jeff Sessions once said was “good for America.”

The law was primarily aimed at further restricting immigration of Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans, especially Italians, Slavs and Eastern European Jews. In addition, it severely restricted the immigration of Africans and banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians.

Crafting a reasonable immigration policy is complex and requires balancing a lot of different motivations, like humanitarianism, American leadership, economic development, and a recognition of America’s history as an immigrant nation. The one thing that shouldn’t be in the mix is an exclusion based on race and national origin, which Trump has placed front and center. That is what is at the heart of the debate right now on immigration policy. This administration wants to take us back to a dark day in this country’s history.

As we celebrate Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, it is worth noting that his words continue to be a dream.

I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream…

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.