Foon Rhee

Does Trump want to Make America White Again?

Trump signs 'extreme vetting' executive action tightening restrictions for refugees

President Donald Trump signed an executive action at the Pentagon in January, tightening the United States' refugee and visa policies.
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President Donald Trump signed an executive action at the Pentagon in January, tightening the United States' refugee and visa policies.

It would be good for the economy if more immigrants coming to America had higher skills.

But when that idea is tied to slashing the total number of legal immigrants in half, keeping families apart and putting English speakers at the front of the line, it goes against America’s history as a nation where all kinds of people from all over the globe can seek their dreams. That’s especially true in California, home to one-fourth of the nation’s immigrants, who have helped build the state’s powerful economy.

After all, the poem inside the Statue of Liberty declares: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It doesn’t say: “Give me your fluent English speakers, your already well-off, your highly-skilled workers yearning for a Wine Country getaway.”

The bill that President Donald Trump embraced Wednesday isn’t the fair and comprehensive immigration reform we need. It doesn’t fit the facts of immigrants in America today – their jobs and education and financial status. And many experts say such a severe decline in immigration could hurt the economy.

Thankfully, it appears to have little chance of passing. So is Trump just pandering to white, conservative voters in his base? Is it really part of a larger plan to Make America White Again?

Trump does need to shore up support after his failures and the looming Russia investigation have pushed his approval rating to record lows. But just as significantly, demographers project that non-Hispanic whites will no longer be a majority by 2044. That is, unless there are dramatic changes – like drastically reducing immigration from Asia and Latin America.

This move by Trump has his chief strategist Stephen Bannon’s fingerprints all over it, promoting Bannon’s ideology of white nationalism and populism. It’s no accident that the White House sent out senior adviser Stephen Miller, a combative nationalist, to talk up the bill as “pro-American” and a way to cut welfare costs and put the “working class ahead of the investor class.”

It also isn’t mere coincidence that the Trump Justice Department is reportedly launching an examination of affirmative action in college admissions – another hot topic for racial resentment.

The RAISE Act is being billed as the biggest change to immigration law in 50 years. It would reduce family-sponsored immigrants to only spouses and young children. It would end the lottery of 50,000 visas from underrepresented countries and cap green cards for refugees at 50,000 a year. And the “merit-based” setup would use a points system, like those in Canada and Australia, that gives priority to those who speak English, have degrees and work skills.

The result would be to reduce legal immigration by 39 percent its first year and nearly 50 percent over a decade, says Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who introduced S. 354 in February.

Democrats quickly cried foul, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who said the bill “betrays our country’s values” and would have barred her mother, who emigrated from Russia. Immigrant advocacy groups objected. So did a coalition of high-tech companies and universities, which said what would really help is to increase the number of H1-B visas for highly skilled workers, and that a government-run points system would lead to more higher-skilled workers in fields where they’re not needed.

Nearly 1,500 economists point out in a letter to the president and Congress that to grow our economy, we need immigrants to fill the workforce as baby boomers retire and to be the entrepreneurs who create jobs. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says that “dramatically reducing overall immigration levels won’t raise the standard of living for Americans.”

What Trump is pushing on legal immigration is doubling down on his terrible proposals and red-meat rhetoric on illegal immigration – spending billions on the boondoggle wall on the Mexico border and talking as if hordes of gangs and criminals are crossing the border to ravage our cities.

Just by forcing the political world to consider these immigration proposals, Trump lowers the bar for what seems reasonable and possible in the future. And as is so often the case, what he says isn’t always true.

Newer immigrants are already better educated; nearly half arrive with college degrees now. Legal immigrants are scattered in many kinds of jobs, including professional and management; it’s undocumented workers who are concentrated in service or construction jobs. While the poverty rate for immigrants is somewhat higher than for the U.S.-born, working-class immigrants are less likely to use public aid programs than the native born.

So, again, if there isn’t a huge problem of uneducated masses coming to America, taking blue-collar jobs away from native workers and taking advantage of welfare, what is this really about?

Other statistics point to what could be the true goal.

In 1960, there were 9.7 million immigrants in America, and three-fourths came from Europe. Now, the foreign-born population is a record 43 million-plus, and only 11 percent come from Europe.

The number of immigrants has quadrupled and the ethnic mix has shifted significantly toward Asia and Latin America since 1965, when Congress replaced a quota system that favored immigrants from Europe.

Since readers may be wondering, my own immigrant story is that I was born in Korea and grew up in England, North Carolina and Ohio before becoming a citizen in 1982.

I’m blessed and proud to be an American. So when Miller, who grew up in Santa Monica, claimed the Statue of Liberty has little to do with immigration, I almost threw something at my office TV.

It turns out Miller’s own great-grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Belarus, and the first in the family to arrive in America came past the Statue of Liberty in 1903.

That made me wonder: Would they fit the Miller and Bannon profile of the ideal immigrant? If their plan had been the law back then, would Miller have even been standing in the White House to call for keeping out the huddled masses?

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee