"Our country is full.” Those four searing words encapsulate immigration policy under the Trump administration. President Donald Trump initially uttered, and subsequently retweeted, his message while touring a piece of the barrier wall in a California border community last year. Significantly, it succinctly conveys the exclusionary, nativist agenda that has influenced its legal approach over the last three years.
Still, a recent expose, “How Stephen Miller Manipulates Donald Trump to Further His Immigration Obsession,” from The New Yorker reminds us that while he may have run his 2016 presidential bid on an anti-immigrant platform, President Trump’s senior policy advisor is the chief architect of the cruel results. From instituting a zero-tolerance policy separating families at the southern border that left innocent children traumatized, to crafting (and subsequently expanding) the Muslim Ban with the primary purpose of excluding, marginalizing, and stigmatizing religious and cultural outsiders, to prohibiting immigrants brought illegally as children from securing lawful status, Miller’s worst impulses are reflected in official policies.
Recall, for instance, when Miller was asked about the words—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”—engraved into the Statue of Liberty, a beacon of American freedom and democracy. His response is revealing, “I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty enlightening the world. It’s a symbol of American liberty lighting the world. The poem that you’re referring to was added later, it’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
Or, consider how Miller lionizes President Calvin Coolidge, who enacted the Immigration Act of 1924. The law, premised on the debunked theory of eugenics, restricted immigration from specific countries or regions because of a perceived threat to American culture, jobs, and land. On the other hand, it concurrently promoted more immigration from Northern Europe, reflective of the national origin of the country’s then majority. For instance, Mexican, Japanese, Italian, and Eastern European Jewish immigrants were largely excluded, while Irish, German, and British newcomers were welcomed. Upon signing the act, President Coolidge proclaimed in an eerily familiar message, “America must remain American.”
Indeed, nativist ideology did not originate with this administration. Nor will it necessarily end when President Trump exits the White House. According to public opinion polling data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), for example, xenophobia is rampant within the Republican Party with tangible real-world consequences. For instance, 63 percent of Republicans believe that immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background. Significantly, such beliefs underpin the white supremacist “great replacement” or “white genocide” theory. According to this conspiracy theory, non-white populations are “replacing” white people vis-à-vis mass immigration.
In fact, this ideology inspired the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Prior to the shooting, the attacker shared xenophobic posts online about the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a Jewish nonprofit that assists refugees and other immigrants around the world. Illustrative posts include, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered;” “Why hello there hias! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us;” and “Open your Eyes! It’s the filthy evil jews bringing in the filthy evil muslims into the country.” Relatedly, the attacker was a white genocide theorist.
Similarly, the El Paso, Texas, mass shooter subscribed to the same ideology. The assault targeting “Mexicans” on August 3, 2019, left 22 dead, including six victims of Mexican heritage. Notably, the attacker penned a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto that warned of an America overrun by Latino immigrants. Mirroring the sentiments expressed in public opinion polling above, not to mention inflammatory political rhetoric, the El Paso shooter’s manifesto explained that the attack was “in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
As noted, such anti-immigrant bias also inspires xenophobic laws, policies, and practices in a mutually reinforcing manner. Consider, for instance, that 74 percent of Republicans support temporarily preventing people from some majority Muslim countries from entering the country. Such anti-Muslim sentiment culminates in discriminatory policy from a Republican administration—the Muslim Ban—that was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority. Notably, the law signals to the public that Muslims are unwelcome religious and cultural outsiders. The public then absorbs that official message and may reflect it back in myriad forms of anti-Muslim bias, from bias-based school bullying, to acts or threats of violence. Indeed, Muslim American advocacy groups claim that anti-Muslim hate crimes surged immediately following the Muslim Ban’s implementation. What is more, according to a 2018 report from South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), one in five perpetrators of hate violence incidents against Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians have cited President Trump, a Trump policy, or a Trump campaign slogan.
Insofar as our laws and public institutions signal official approval for anti-Muslim discrimination, they help create a precedent for the government to similarly mark other minority groups for disfavored treatment. In fact, on January 31, 2020, the Trump administration expanded the Muslim Ban to include six new countries—four of which are African. The expansion, which took effect the following month, blocked certain types of visas for citizens from Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Tanzania, in addition to those in Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan. This newest iteration of the ban reveals how ideologies of oppression—racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia—may overlap and intersect culminating in real-world consequences. Indeed, such measures only serve to further stigmatize and degrade marginalized minority communities while exacerbating an already tense racial, social, and political climate.
Arguably, this administration is not exceptional but rather representative of Republic Party values. According to PRRI, 75 percent of Republicans also believe immigrants burden local communities by using more than their share of social services—such as Medicaid, housing vouchers, and food assistance. And 56 percent of Republicans also object to allowing immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children to gain legal resident status. These figures help contextualize the Trump administration’s rescission of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a popular President Barack Obama program, subsequently giving rise to this term’s most anticipated immigration case on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket. The data also helps explain the recently expanded “public charge” rule denying permanent legal status (e.g., green cards) to poor immigrants who will likely use public benefits; some immigrants are now giving up food stamps and living in hunger because they fear deportation.
PRRI’s research further illustrates how political affiliation may serve as an influential lens through which a spectrum of issues—such as immigration—are viewed. In the era of Trump and the Republican Party’s political dominance, this is a necessary reminder to invigorate the U.S. electorate on a local, state, and national level in a critical election year.
Indeed, it is against this backdrop that we present this edition of Human Rights magazine.
Engy Abdelkader is chairwoman of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice's Rights of Immigrants Committee.