In Trump’s Immigration Remarks, Echoes of a Century-Old Racial Ranking

Its resurfacing in the public sphere capsizes a half-century of mainstream consensus: that immigrants enrich the United States, no matter where they come from.

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President Trump at the White House on Thursday, the day he disparaged Haitian and African immigrants.

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Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Mr. Trump’s remarks were “sadly reminiscent of the language used by nativists and racists in the early 20th century against Eastern and Southern Europeans and Asians,” said Mae Ngai, an immigration historian at Columbia University.

“Obviously he likes Norwegians because they are white,” she added. “But he knows nothing about Norway, a country with single-payer universal health care and free college education. Why would anyone want to leave Norway for the U.S.?”

The more liberal immigration policies of 1965 still form the scaffolding of the United States’ legal immigration system, ushering in — if unintentionally — an America that grows less white every year. For years now, Asians, Africans and Hispanics have accounted for an expanding proportion of the country’s visas.

But first came 1924, when the people in charge spoke openly of ranking immigrants of certain origins above others.

That was the year Congress passed an immigration overhaul that set strict quotas designed to encourage immigrants from Western Europe, block all but a few from Southern and Eastern Europe and bar altogether those from Asia. Overall immigration levels were slashed. The racial theories at play in the legislation, wrote the immigration historian Roger Daniels, would later become the first draft of “the official ideology of Nazi Germany.”

There were some familiar refrains in the 1924 immigration debate. Cheap immigrant labor had depressed wages, the restrictionists said. Immigrants had seized jobs from Americans, they said. But it was also heavy on racist rhetoric aimed at preserving what eugenicists and social theorists of the time called the “Nordic” race that, in their telling, had originally settled the United States.

The bill’s authors had been avid readers of the 1916 book “The Passing of the Great Race,” in which the eugenicist Madison Grant warned that the country was in danger of a “replacement of a higher type by a lower type here in America unless the native American uses his superior intelligence to protect himself and his children…

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