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Historicizing Trump

President Donald Trump’s recent, obscene remarks concerning immigration have incensed many, both domestically and abroad. In this latest debacle, Trump asked several Congress members during a discussion on alternatives to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) why the US accepts people from “sh*thole countries.” According to reports, he continued by inquiring why the United States would want Haitians immigrants and later told Congress members to “Take them out.” Although Trump and some GOP senators have rejected the claims about his commentary, numerous world leaders and members of the public have swiftly condemned Trump’s language. However, with this newest transgression dominating the news cycle, it’s fair to wonder what these types of comments mean in the larger context of the Trump administration’s rhetoric as well as American immigration history in general.

As it stands, Trump’s alleged words should surprise few. During his presidential campaign Trump frequently pledged to rancorous crowds that he would build a wall along US-Mexico border to keep out immigrants who—he claimed—brought crime and drugs. Within a short time after taking office, he started to launch attempts at implementing travel bans that only applied to select countries. Trump also declared that he would end the Obama-era DACA provisions that granted protection to undocumented children brought into the United States by their parents, cementing his status as a hyper-nationalist commander-in-chief. He was even reported to have claimed that all Haitians have AIDS. When contextualized by the consistent attacks he has launched—both verbal and legislative—whether or not Trump uttered these specific negative sentiments during a meeting with senators is of relatively little consequence. They would simply be business as usual and confirm what the public already knows about his priorities. Furthermore, rhetoric like this isn’t exactly out of the ordinary when considering the xenophobic and discriminatory immigration policies that have defined the US for generations.

One need not look far to find documented examples of prejudice against immigrants in America. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese immigrants who were already in the United States from becoming citizens and was in effect until the early 1940s. Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps during World War II under speculation of espionage, a horrific executive order hardly mentioned in American history books. President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 which limited immigration in order to preserve certain racial demographic compositions in the United States. This policy was aimed at reducing the number of Southern and Eastern Europeans—groups that were often seen as largely unskilled laborers—and denied entry outright to hopeful Mexican immigrants. Clearly, Trump’s behavior and reactionary speeches are not an isolated incidents, but rather stand as a continuation of a long American tradition of restrictive and racialized immigration policies.

The United States is routinely heralded as a national melting pot where individuals from all backgrounds and identities can have their chance at happiness and success. The idealized American dream has been sought after by many, not just native-born citizens. To suggest that entrance be granted to a select few, especially individuals of a specific racial makeup, goes against the very ideals that the US claims to embody. The dark and shameful timeline of immigration issues in America can’t be erased or conveniently ignored away. Violent rhetoric and prejudice that are so deeply ingrained into the character of the nation require larger, more concerted and active efforts to craft a better, more equitable future. Just because our past is playing out again in real time, doesn’t mean that we are doomed to repeat it forever. It does, however, signal that the time for action is now. 


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