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“What he said was basically a form of eugenics”: a professor on Trump’s “shithole countries” remarks

A historian helps explain how the president’s rhetoric reaches back to the time of racial immigration quotas.

President Trump and Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway Joint Press Conference Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” the president of the United States reportedly said during a meeting with lawmakers over a potential immigration deal, referring to people from Haiti and African countries. Instead, he complained, the US should be accepting people from places such as Norway.

Trump unconvincingly denied his remarks on Friday, but the White House did not rebut making the “shithole” remarks outright, instead spinning it as Trump’s characteristic toughness on immigration.

“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement to Jim Sciutto of CNN on Thursday. The White House went on to say Trump wants immigrants who can “contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.”

Vox reached out to Ana Minian, an assistant professor of history at Stanford University and author of the forthcoming book Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration, to explain Trump’s comments. She suggested they are echoes of America’s national origins quotas for immigrants decades ago. “Part of what it means to say ‘we don’t want people from these countries,’” Minian said, “is moving back to that very racist law that existed.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jen Kirby

What does it mean that the president is using this kind of language about immigrants?

Ana Minian

Immigration laws are one of the ways in which we make the national body. It’s one of the ways in which we decide, as a country, who we want here and who we don’t. Immigration and births are the way to build a population.

What he [Trump] said was basically a form of eugenics — in which he’s saying, “This is the population we want: people from places like Norway.” White people. We don’t want people from African countries or from Haiti. That’s what’s really symbolic here.

What is also an important takeaway out of this message from Trump is that it takes us back to an earlier period, 1924, when the National Origins Act passed. Part of what it did was — and it had been done before — but part of what that reinforced is that the US wanted people from certain countries and not from others.

It gave a percentage of allowances for people to come, giving preference to Northern Europe, discriminating against Southern and Eastern Europe, and completely barring immigration from Asia. There were a few exceptions, but Asian immigration was, for the most part, barred.

In 1965, we moved away from this National Origins Act, and part of what it means to say “we don’t want people from these countries” is moving back to that very racist law that existed.

Jen Kirby

Trump seems to wholly miss the point about why people, regardless of country of origin, immigrate. For example, economic opportunity. Or is it naive to try to parse this out, and should we just see this as pure racism?

Ana Minian

I just want to amend part of what you said slightly. You said that people come for opportunity, and while that’s absolutely true, it’s not just people coming out of places that are disconnected from the United States, or from places to which immigrants go to or where migrants go to.

For example, there has been a lot of economic exploitation of many of the countries from which migrants leave. Violence is not something that is innate to those areas, but that has happened over time — often impulsed by the West, by colonization.

And there has been, for example, economic investments — multinational corporations coming to these places, displacing people from their land. So of course they move. And the movement is very complicated — but it’s not just about people arriving to a place. It’s also about the displacement and the connections that have happened beforehand, often propelled by places like the United States.

Jen Kirby

Why do you think this disconnect exists between the realities of immigration and how it’s being approached by this administration?

Ana Minian

You were asking me before if it’s just racism. I think racism is a big part of it, but I don’t think it’s just plain racism. I think it’s how racism has been connected with immigration to stoke nativist fears. So, fears of unemployment, fears that our culture will change, fears that disease is coming. AIDS, for example, with Haiti. All these fears are stoked upon through immigration. So is it racism? Yes. But it’s a racism that is very much attached to the fears that people already have.

For example, if there’s unemployment — or even when unemployment isn’t that high — we can say, “Look, if we allow immigrants to come, you will lose your jobs,” or, “You’re not advancing because there are immigrants.” When actually, the reasons why the economy is stagnant or why people can’t advance and move to better jobs are much more complicated, and they’re around structural economic changes, not about the people who are taking these jobs.

Jen Kirby

The National Origins quota, which you mentioned, proves that it’s not necessarily new to America to keep out “the other,” so to speak, though we reformed the system in 1965 — more than 50 years ago. What is the significance, historically, of the president of the United States making such comments in 2018? Is this an outlier, a blip — and far apart from where most Americans now stand? Is this a sign that we’re taking a step backward?

Ana Minian

I think it’s both things. On the one hand, I think rhetorically, we have definitely moved away from this rhetoric after 1965. That there were countries that were just to be barred, is something that is not really heard of after 1965. People were extremely proud of this idea that we were now not a racist country. At least in rhetoric, we had moved away. I’m not saying in practice at all. But you know, the idea of a multicultural society, and the idea that there was no racism or we were fighting against racism, seemed to be elevated. [But] it’s got other words we use: So we wouldn’t say, “We don’t want Mexicans.” We would say, “We don’t want illegals.” Right?

Jen Kirby


Ana Minian

Legality became a proxy for racism. It was a way to avoid saying racist things. Now [Trump’s comments] are blatantly racist, right? This is saying these countries can’t come in. I think that’s a move back.

Now in this picture, there are some complications. It’s not true all countries have been equally welcome. For example, during the Cold War, Cubans could come and not be undocumented because they were considered to be exiles from the Cold War, and, of course, the United States wanted to propel that and to say, “Look, what’s happening in Cuba is terrible, we should allow these immigrants to come, they are good representatives for our nation.” While, of course, not doing that for people who were escaping from economic problems, such as Mexicans.

So I do think that countries have been given preference over others, often or primarily because of foreign policy interests. But I think that this rhetoric, this plain, “We won’t allow one country to come,” rather than using proxies to say that, is very different.

Jen Kirby

How equitable is our immigration system now? Or do systemic issues still prevail?

Ana Minian

No, it’s kind of what I was saying. I think the immigration system in the United States is inherently racist. It doesn’t take into consideration things like the historical trajectory of some countries into coming into the United States. Countries like Mexico, for example, should have a much higher per-country limit than other countries, given the historical connections and the cultural connections and the human connections that exist between the two countries.

Immigration law also doesn’t take into consideration the size of the country, the population density. So I do think that immigration law, like I said, the emphasis on legality, I think, is a proxy for racism. Immigration law could be much better and has had problems in the past, and still does. I think what’s surprising is not necessarily that, but it’s how blatant, how obvious Trump makes it seem. He uncovers this existing biases and makes it worse.

Jen Kirby

What are some ways to address this?

Ana Milian

I think what’s important is to raise the number of visas that we allow for residency, the residency slots that we allow. At the moment, it’s extremely low, so people have to come often without papers.

And I think it’s important to see these connections of out-migration and in-immigration. What’s happening in other countries, and what is the United States — what has it historically done and what is it still doing — that’s promoting out-migration? Those are two things that are very important to look at.

Jen Kirby

When the US changed the law in 1965, what was the reaction among the American public?

Ana Milian

People were generally very happy about it. It did have some regressive measures. People did not realize it at the time, but it was the first time that the United States imposed quotas on what was known as the Western Hemisphere, which is the Americas.

So before that, people from the Americas could migrate legally, and what stopped them from doing so were administrative laws or practices — but it wasn’t the law, it wasn’t immigration law. And it’s only after 1965 that immigrants from the Western Hemisphere — Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, all those countries — can no longer assume that they can come legally to the United States. Conservatives managed to add this little thing at the eleventh hour.

Meanwhile, Democrats were celebrating that the National Origins Quota was over. This happened at a time when, in the civil rights era, people were really celebrating a move toward liberalism and a more just, more equal, racial society. And so I think it was overall celebrated.

Jen Kirby

What about since then? Were there any periods of notable backlash compared to what it feels like we’re seeing now?

Ana Minian

There has been a lot of backlash to another law that happened in 1986, known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which basically is the law that helped legalize millions of people, and that also more heavily fortified the border. There was immediately a backlash against the law. When the right, nowadays, talks about amnesty, that’s the law they’re referring to.

Jen Kirby

Can you explain that?

Ana Minian

In 1986, Congress passed, and Reagan signed, this law called the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which basically does four things. It more heavily fortifies the border, so that immigrants can’t come illegally, or makes it harder. It creates or expands a guest worker program, known as the H-2A, and H-2B programs. It imposes employer sanctions on employers who knowingly hire unauthorized immigrants, and it legalized immigrants who have been here for over 90 days if they worked on a farm [between May 1985 and May 1986], or who had been here since 1982 — so for five years.

Whenever the right talks amnesty, that’s what they’re referring to because of this legalization part.

It wasn’t really an amnesty, because an amnesty would have been basically giving something for free. Immigrants had to show that they were a big part of society, and that they knew English, and they had to pay very heavy fees. So it wasn’t quite like it’s depicted, and not everyone could legalize their status at the time.

Reagan hailed [the law] as the one that would protect our borders and would solve the immigration problem. Of course, part of the way it was supposed to do that was by heavily fortifying the border. But as we know, heavily fortifying the border is not something that stops unauthorized migration. Unauthorized migration actually exploded after 1986.

The right is like, “See, this exploded because you gave the amnesty to all these people, and people kept coming and we didn’t really fortify the border.” The left is saying, “Look, all this fortification of the border didn’t stop the immigrants from coming, but people did start dying in very high numbers.” So both the left and the right are unhappy with IRCA, as it is known.

Jen Kirby

It seems we’re back in the same spot with this debate over DACA — trying to tie protections to border security.

Ana Minian

Exactly. And this is something I really want to add, because this debate was originally tied to DACA. It’s part of why these kids are here. Their parents, when the border wasn’t fortified, generally, it was only men who would migrate, and they would migrate circularly and leave their kids and wives behind, and they would come, work, and then return.

When the border becomes more fortified, they realize they can’t come and go, so they bring their children and wives with them. That’s why there are so many children who are undocumented at the time in the United States.

This is a problem that starts after 1986 and that we didn’t use to have. The children who were born, who are now requesting DACA, are in the United States because of border fortification. It’s extremely ironic that now we think the solution is to be tied to border fortification.

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