President Donald Trump’s decision to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—an Obama-era executive order protecting DREAMers DREAMers are undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. DACA allows them to defer deportation and legally reside in the United States for two years, and makes it possible to obtain driver's licenses, enroll in college, and hold jobs. Latest government figures estimate that there are nearly 800,000 DREAMers living in the United States. —earned near-universal condemnation from Democrats and Republicans. But while targeting immigrants who were brought here as children is new, Trump’s actions are consistent with a strain of American politics going back centuries.
Nativism—the often racialized view that local interests should be protected over those of immigrants—is as old as the country itself. The anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic “Know-Nothing Party” was a major political force in the middle of the 19th century, electing eight governors and more than 100 members of Congress. The Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europeans, targeting Italians and Jews. Just this week, former White House adviser Steve Bannon revived anti-Catholic tropes in voicing his opposition to DACA.
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I spoke with Tyler Anbinder, a historian at The George Washington University and expert on the history of nativism in the United States, about how Trump’s decision fits into nativist politics throughout the country’s history.
Jeremy Slevin: You’ve written a lot about this concept of nativism. Can you start by explaining what it means and where Donald Trump fits into it?
Tyler Anbinder: Nativism is the fear of or dislike of immigrants and the belief that immigrants make the United States a worse place to live. Donald Trump fits in the pattern of American nativism that we’ve had for several centuries in that there’s always been a certain portion of the population that has a gut reaction that immigrants are a bad thing, that they take jobs from other Americans, that they change American culture for the worse, that immigrants can never become true Americans. Those tend to be the strains of nativist thought.
JS: Is there precedent for this level of vitriol and this level of nativism at the presidential level?
TA: Probably not at the presidential level. Typically, it’s been Congress that’s been much more anti-immigrant than presidents. In the past, when you had Congress pass anti-immigrant legislation, presidents have repeatedly vetoed it, and that happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with presidents such as Taft and Wilson vetoing immigrant-restriction legislation.
So this is a rare case in which the president tends to be the leader of the anti-immigrant movement and Congress is maybe a little less willing to go along.
JS: Obviously the big news this week is DACA, rolling back President Obama’s executive order protecting DREAMers. I think what makes this shocking to a lot of people is that these are people brought here as kids, traditionally a sympathetic political group. Has there been a singling out of immigrant children, either for good or for ill, in the past? Or is this a new territory?
TA: This is pretty much a new territory, because for most of American history, children have not been immigrants. Immigrants would overwhelmingly be people in their 20s especially, late teens, maybe early 30s … immigrants rarely brought children to America. They typically came to America unmarried, trying to strike out in the world on their own. There were exceptions—during the Irish potato famine for instance, or when Eastern European Jews were escaping the Pogroms in Russia. But typically, children haven’t been a very big part of the American immigration story.
JS: The not-so-subtle subtext of all this is racism, whether against Muslims like we saw in the travel ban and now Latinos with the end of DACA. It seems like race and immigration have always been linked—how has that evolved over time?
TA: Certainly American nativism has always had a racial dimension, even though exactly what people mean by the term “race” has changed. In the 19th century, the big targets of the nativists were the Irish. The American nativists believed that the Irish were of a different race—that most white Americans were Anglo-Saxon in origin, and the Irish were different and therefore couldn’t become true Americans, and weren’t even intellectually capable of reaching the status of other Americans.
In the late 19th century, the same charges were leveled against Eastern European Jews and Italian immigrants, which were the two biggest immigrant groups in that period. People said the same things. They would go so far as to say that these groups weren’t really “white,” and therefore being “less than white,” they weren’t capable of the intellectual attainments that other whites were and they should be barred from the United States.
JS: Have nativists always wrapped themselves in the identity of whiteness?
TA: Yes, with some exceptions. In the 1920’s, when there were restrictions on Southern and Eastern European immigration, African Americans were big supporters of that. They supported it primarily because they said, “immigrants are taking our jobs, and if we have fewer immigrants, better jobs would go to African Americans.”
So it’s not just that nativism is solely something that whites participate in. It can be something that others partake in, too. But in terms of the majority of American nativism, there’s always been a sense that the new group isn’t part of what the current Americans define as being American. For a long time that meant being a certain type of Protestant. Then it meant all Protestants. Then it meant all Christians. Then it meant Judeo-Christians. And that’s where we are today, perhaps.
JS: Steve Bannon said today that American Catholics have an economic interest in unlimited illegal immigration, so you’re kind of seeing that Anglo-Saxon anti-Catholic sentiment creep up again.
TA: That’s so interesting, I didn’t hear about that. Yes, that would precisely fit in with that historic trend.
JS: At the same time, there’s a tension within the modern Republican party between business leaders and Republican elites who often support immigration because it’s seen as a boon to the economy. Has that tension always existed?
TA: Yes, although the important thing to understand is that the business community won out for most of American history. Even when immigration restrictions were in place, often there would be loopholes. A great example of that is in the 1920’s, when restrictions were put in place on Southern and Eastern European Jews, there was an exception for Latinos. And that’s so those employers say, “well, we may not be able to get those Eastern or Southern European workers, but we can get Mexicans instead to do the work that those other people used to do.”
It’s only really starting in the 1960’s, when the restrictions were relaxed on groups like Asians and Africans and Eastern Europeans, that the restrictions were put in place on Latinos.
JS: So it kind of shifted—when Eastern Europeans were the largest immigrant group, they were targeted, and now that Latinos are a larger immigrant group, they’ve become the target.
Obviously, you’re more accustomed to looking backward, but what do you think is next, after DACA? Do you think we’re on a more restrictionist path like the 1920’s, or do you think this has got to shift?
TA: Well, it’ll be really interesting. Until very recently, I’d have said that the restriction could not win out legislatively. Politicians have found that talking tough on immigration is good, but Congressional Republicans are split between a cultural wing and a business wing, and the business wing has been very adamantly against restricting immigration for the reasons that we talked about. Because of that, there’s been this 30-year stalemate where nothing has changed.
But typically, Republican presidents have leaned toward the business wing. Clearly, it’s hard to predict where Trump is going to go, but one option he has is removing the [undocumented] immigrants that are already here. That’s something that the president can do on his own; he doesn’t need Congress, since it’s just an enforcement matter. That seems like the most likely possibility.
The next possibility would be the bill that was proposed by Tom Cotton a few weeks ago calling for a reduction in the number of legal immigrants. I find it hard to imagine that bill passing Congress, but certainly a lot of the Trump base would support that proposal, I’d imagine. I still think the most likely thing is gridlock on that, but with stepped-up deportation.
But I have to say this is a whole new ballgame, so it’s hard to predict.
This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and will air as part of a complete episode on September 15. It was edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview below.