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Trump is making the racist subtext text

You can’t make an immigration compromise around “shithole countries.” Now everyone knows that.

TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMP Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

The problem for Republicans in Congress working on a deal to legalize hundreds of thousands of young immigrants: They took President Trump literally.

Members of Congress (most notably Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin, who negotiated the deal Trump panned in Thursday’s meeting) took Trump at his word and attempted to address his stated concerns.

The problem, as the “shithole countries” remark made clear, is that Trump’s objections don’t appear to be rooted in specific policy concerns. If Trump blew up a DACA deal over his “shithole countries” remarks, it’s because he revealed his months of (relatively) specific criticism of parts of the US immigration system to be mere pretense for blunt racism, and thus made a deal impossible.

If he’s opened the door to a deal, it’s because his apparent racial animus could free Congress to stop looking to him for leadership — thus producing a compromise that he would ultimately sign anyway.

Either way, the “shithole” comment ended months of attempting to divine a vision for immigration policy — and ultimately, the framework for a congressional proposal — from the sounds coming out of Trump’s mouth.

The “shithole” comment was a clarifying moment. Such moments often make clear fundamentally contradictory visions of America. It’s impossible to negotiate with people who believe any change to America-as-they-see-it is an existential threat — and when they’re direct or boorish enough to say that out loud, it saves everyone the time and trouble of trying to compromise.

Graham and Durbin addressed the text of Trump’s original concerns — but apparently missed the subtext

Trump’s demands for a DACA deal appeared relatively clear: protect DACA recipients; end “chain migration;” get rid of the visa lottery; fund the wall.

Some of those were much more feasible, as policy or legislative politics, than others. But they appeared well defined — so much so, in fact, that the White House released a statement after last week’s televised Oval Office circus claiming that participants had “agreed” to limit negotiations to those four issues.

That’s exactly what the proposal negotiated by a group of six senators, and presented to the president by Graham and Durbin, is designed to do. It only provides one year of funding for the wall; it doesn’t “end” chain migration, but does limit it for the young immigrants or “Dreamers” who would be legalized.

Those objections weren’t the ones that Trump voiced so angrily on Thursday. Instead, he objected to the proposal to eliminate the “lottery” part of the visa lottery but preserve the “diversity” part, saying it would benefit African “shithole countries.” Instead, he wanted more immigration from countries like Norway (and, according to some reports, Asia).

Trump also objected to the idea of using other visa slots from the lottery to provide green cards to people who are losing Temporary Protected Status after decades in the US (who currently have no way to stay permanently) — or at least he objected to allowing Haitian TPS recipients to get green cards under the deal, reportedly saying “take them out.”

Neither of these is a policy objection that could be addressed, and Durbin and Graham didn’t take them as such.

It would be legally or morally impermissible to allow TPS holders from other countries to get green cards, but not Haitians, just because the president said he didn’t want “more” Haitians (never mind that the people who’d get green cards are, by definition, already living in the US).

It would be an unconscionable act of moral backsliding to return to the pre-1965 immigration system, in which immigration quotas varied by country in an effort to preserve racial balance, to design an immigration system that disfavored people from certain countries on the basis that they were “shithole countries.” It would be hard for legislators to defend; it would make the US an international pariah, and rightly so.

There are two appropriate responses to these comments: to dismiss them as an emotional outburst that the famously mercurial president could move on from, or to treat them as a mission statement and conclude that no deal is possible. So far, Graham and Durbin are doing the former. Whether they’re right is yet to be seen.

Policy concerns are often interwoven with racist anxieties — but the distinction between the two is willingness to compromise

As an immigration reporter, one of the things I struggle most with is making it clear that there are arguments for restrictions on immigration that are not necessarily motivated by racial animus, while acknowledging that, often, it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

It’s possible to take a “rule of law” attitude toward unauthorized immigration while welcoming legal immigrants (though most Americans who are exercised about the first also oppose the second). It’s possible to support lower legal immigration, on balance, to the US, without caring much about where those immigrants come from.

It’s possible to support “merit-based immigration” as a way to affirmatively select each individual allowed to settle in the US, and oppose forms of immigration — including family-based migration, humanitarian migration, and the diversity visa — that have any criteria other than an individual’s accomplishments.

The problem is that some of the people who espouse all those attitudes are consumed, at heart, by the fear that the America they know is being lost or in danger of being lost. They believe that America has a distinctive and tangible culture, and that too much immigration from cultures that are too different will dilute or drown it; they may even worry about a cultural “invasion.”

This is an anxiety born of xenophobia. It accepts as a premise that people who come to America from certain places “don’t assimilate,” and concludes that there are some groups of people who cannot ever be fully American.

The policy aims of restrictionism can be negotiated and legislated — even as the extent to which they’re underpinned by racism will inevitably be part of the debate. It’s almost unimaginably hard to figure out a way to “end chain migration” that would both pass Congress and avoid a collapse of the immigration system, but it’s still a discussion that can happen.

You can’t negotiate with people who believe that an America that lets in people from “shithole countries” isn’t the America they know or love. Either America is a nation of immigrants or it is a nation of blood and soil. It cannot be both.