A Rational Immigration Debate Can’t Be Grounded in Nativism

The current issue of The Atlantic contains articles by David Frum and Adam Serwer that are both about immigration in the United States, but couldn’t offer a more stark contrast in terms of approach.

Frum’s piece is provocatively titled, “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will.” He provides a lot of data about immigration, much of which is manipulated to back up the myth that it poses a crisis both here and in Europe. That is what leads to his main point.

Demagogues don’t rise by talking about irrelevant issues. Demagogues rise by talking about issues that matter to people, and that more conventional leaders appear unwilling or unable to address: unemployment in the 1930s, crime in the 1960s, mass immigration now. Voters get to decide what the country’s problems are. Political elites have to devise solutions to those problems. If difficult issues go unaddressed by responsible leaders, they will be exploited by irresponsible ones.

Where Frum goes wrong is to assume that fears of immigration are a one-way street flowing from voters to either responsible or irresponsible leaders. That ignores the fact that for at least three years now, Donald Trump and his enablers have been fanning the flames of fear with lies and propaganda. People who are afraid of demographic and cultural changes listen to Trump or watch Tucker Carlson (or Lou Hobbs or Laura Ingraham) and have those fears affirmed and heightened. In other words, it’s a negative feedback loop that is constantly reinforced.

Adam Serwer provides us with some history about how these fears have been manipulated in the past. He specifically goes into some detail about how “race science” was used to fan the flames of fear about “white genocide” at the beginning of the 20th century.

The seed of Nazism’s ultimate objective—the preservation of a pure white race, uncontaminated by foreign blood—was in fact sown with striking success in the United States. What is judged extremist today was once the consensus of a powerful cadre of the American elite, well-connected men who eagerly seized on a false doctrine of “race suicide” during the immigration scare of the early 20th century. They included wealthy patricians, intellectuals, lawmakers, even several presidents. Perhaps the most important among them was a blue blood with a very impressive mustache, Madison Grant. He was the author of a 1916 book called The Passing of the Great Race, which spread the doctrine of race purity all over the globe.

Here is just one passage from that book by Grant that is echoed in what we’re hearing these days from people like Carlson, Ingraham, and Trump.

These immigrants adopt the language of the native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name, and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals and while he is being elbowed out of his own home the American looks calmly abroad and urges on others the suicidal ethics which are exterminating his own race.

The end product of that manufactured crisis was passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, leading Albert Johnson—Grant’s congressional ally—to write, “The United States is our land … We intend to maintain it so. The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended.”

After reviewing the history, this is Serwer’s conclusion.

That nations make decisions about appropriate levels of immigration is not inherently evil or fascist. Nor does the return of Grantian ideas to mainstream political discourse signal an inevitable march to Holocaust-level crimes against humanity. But to recognize the homegrown historical antecedents of today’s rhetoric is to call attention to certain disturbing assumptions that have come to define the current immigration debate in America—in particular, that intrinsic human worth is rooted in national origin, and that a certain ethnic group has a legitimate claim to permanent political hegemony in the United States. The most benignly intentioned mainstream-media coverage of demographic change in the U.S. has a tendency to portray as justified the fear and anger of white Americans who believe their political power is threatened by immigration—as though the political views of today’s newcomers were determined by genetic inheritance rather than persuasion.

To have a reasoned debate about levels of immigrants, as Frum suggests, is impossible so long as Trump and his enablers are consumed with the idea that “intrinsic human worth is rooted in national origin, and that a certain ethnic group has a legitimate claim to permanent political hegemony in the United States.” Need I remind you that it was Donald Trump who, in rejecting a bipartisan plan to protect Dreamers, referred to immigrants from Africa and Latin America as coming from “shithole countries” and suggested that we need more immigrants from countries like Norway?

As I suggested a few weeks ago, the correct response to that nativism is the speech Barack Obama gave at the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, where he defined what it means to be American.

The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny.  It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon…

For we were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people.  That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter.  We know America is what we make of it.

That is the view of America that can defeat the fascist demagogues, cleanse the pallet, and open the door to a rational debate about immigration.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.