Stephen Miller stood in front of a gaggle of reporters this week and declared that “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” was an embarrassing footnote in American history.
He was talking about the White House’s push on the RAISE Act, a bill that would cut legal immigration to the US in half over the next decade (mostly by slashing family-based immigration and ending the country’s “diversity visa" lottery). This was part of an effort by the White House, as John Cornyn said, to reopen a national conversation about legal immigration — specifically, to introduce the possibility that it might in fact be bad in current quantities.
The White House also recently held a press conference to talk about how Central American immigrants are feeding into the gang MS-13: that they rape and murder people instead of assimilating, that they are criminals who have taken over America’s streets.
These aren’t just messages being sent from the White House, a "Too Much Immigration Is Bad" week along the lines of "Infrastructure Week" and "American Heroes Week." They’re messages sent throughout the Trump administration — and sometimes, the tiniest changes are the most revealing ones.
A couple of weeks ago, the Trump administration quietly changed the name of a grant given by US Citizenship and Immigration Services to local organizations from “Citizenship and Integration” to “Citizenship and Assimilation.”
The small tweak was a shot across the bow. It’s a declaration of who should be considered fully American: not just putting down roots in a community, becoming integrated into its economy and civic life, but assimilating — sloughing off something of one’s ancestral culture to take on something American instead.
The Trump administration is reopening a conversation much bigger than "how many immigrants should the US admit." It’s reintroducing the idea that diversity itself might not be a good thing for America. In Trump’s America, diversity has rendered swaths of the country unrecognizable and even hostile to longtime Americans — largely the white voters who make up Trump’s base. Not only do they want to take their country back, but they are anxious never to "lose" it again.
Remember when everyone agreed diversity was good?
For the past several decades, diversity has been something that both sides of the political aisle at least paid lip service to.
Not everyone saw diversity as something worth pursuing for its own sake, to be sure — hence constant debates over “affirmative action” versus “meritocracy.”
But the idea of diversity, in and of itself, wasn’t a wedge issue. It was a value that everyone claimed to uphold, and some simply doubted the strength of others’ commitment to it.
Those who believed that diversity was a threat to the American way of life — an intrusion of foreign cultures, strange religions, and alien ideas — didn’t find any quarter for that belief in polite company, mass media, or politics. Now, they have their champion. The idea of diversity itself is now back up for debate.
There was an obvious upside, for Republicans, in defanging diversity — turning it into a trope of apolitical, apple-pie Americana. Their base continued to be wary, at best, that newcomers to America strengthened the country. But their base was aging, and the younger generations of Americans, increasingly, took “strength in diversity” as a fact of life.
Crucially, those younger generations were, themselves, more ethnically diverse than their elders. The factoid that “America will become a majority-minority nation by 2050” was more likely to be used as a talking point in political consultants’ presentations about building coalitions than voiced as an anxiety by mainstream politicians. America was coming to diversity just as inevitably as diversity was coming to America, and worrying about it made you seem like not only a racist but a fool.
Back when diversity was a settled question — at least in public — it was assumed that any politician (or company, or celebrity) would want people of different races, religions, and abilities highly placed at public events and featured in promotional campaigns. It was assumed that the president would do anodyne photo-ops like hosting a Ramadan break-fast — things that would both remind Muslims in the US that America agreed they were Americans, and remind non-Muslims that someone can be American while observing religious holidays and eating traditional foods. There was an interest in treating everyone as, if not yet fully American, Americanizable — and an awareness that maybe it would be America that would change to meet them, as much as the other way around.
There was an interest in portraying, and treating, no one as unassimilable. Trump has given those who worried immigrants might not integrate a voice — a powerful one.
The Trump administration is anxious about assimilation because it fears it’s impossible
The distinction between assimilation and integration — between the vision of America as a melting pot and America as a salad, to use the standard metaphors — might seem like nothing more than a difference of degree: how much someone should have to change to become American once arriving here.
But it’s really a question of how diverse a country can be without breaking.
What’s really striking about the “RAISE Act” introduced in the Senate this week by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Purdue (R-GA) and endorsed by the White House is that its authors characterize it as a “shift” away from family-based immigration and toward “merit-based” immigration. But the bill doesn’t actually shift slots allocated for the former toward the latter; it simply slashes family-based immigration, while leaving merit-based immigration flat, so that merit-based immigration becomes more common than family-based immigration by default.
By doing this, the bill wouldn’t just be an unprecedented cut to legal immigration. It would make the very “merit-based” immigrants it claims to welcome less likely to want to stay because highly skilled immigrants often want to live with their families, too.
In theory, if America took integration as the goal of its immigration policy, it would encourage people to put down roots rather than coming to the US for a few years and leaving, or staying here without fully committing to citizenship. It would encourage their spouses to work, their children to attend US schools and learn English (and perhaps be cared for by members of the extended family when both parents are at work), their wages to stay in the American economy rather than being sent home in remittances.
But the worry at the core of “chain migration” is that at a certain mathematical tipping point, having an excess family member come renders the whole family less American (even if each family member has had to live in the US for a decade or longer before sending for anyone else).
If you believe that Americanness is brittle, you want to be damned sure the people you’re bringing to America won’t break it before you make too many commitments to let them stay.
The thing about assimilation, you see, is that the people most anxious about it tend to believe that there are some people who simply aren’t assimilable — whether because they’re not evolved enough (per early-20th-century eugenicists), or because their cultures and worldviews are simply irreconcilable with American views of freedom and achievement (per early-21st-century “anti-Sharia” activists).
This is the power of the old complaint that “when my ancestors came to this country they learned English and worked hard, nowadays immigrants just don’t bother.” It’s false on both counts. But it also lends itself well to the assumption that these supposed individual moral failings can be prevented by changing the way America selects immigrants as a whole — that you can predict which kinds of immigrants will and will not be willing to give up who they have been to become Americans.
This is a theme Trump has hit on anew lately. In his speech Friday on Long Island, he used it to characterize MS-13 gang violence as a failure of assimilation:
You say what happened to the old days where people came into this country, they worked and they worked and they worked and they had families and they paid taxes and they did all sorts of things, and their families got stronger and they were closely knit. We don't see that. Failure to enforce our immigration laws had predictable results. Drugs, gangs, and violence.
Trump’s rhetoric is powerful because it ties a specific problem of gang violence to a whole wave of migrants from Central America — deeming them all, to some extent, unassimilable.
There’s no indication that it’s true, any more than that it was true that the Mexican migrants of the last couple of decades were unassimilable, any more than it’s true that Muslim Americans are unassimilable.
For his audience, though, it’s very easy to take the high-profile incidents of “aberrant” behavior — especially when that behavior is an act of gruesome violence — and blow it up into a shared cultural value from a value system totally inimical to America’s own, and one that its adherents will simply refuse to abandon.
It’s easy because, in part, mass media is the primary way that this audience sees other groups. They’re not on the border, and they (or their parents) left cities like Detroit long ago. Perhaps it’s ironic that white people, who themselves retreated from pluralism en masse in the mid-20th-century — “there goes the neighborhood” — are now the ones believing that other spaces have been taken over by people alien or hostile to them, that there are now places in their own country they simply cannot go for fear of being targeted for violence.
The combination of not living quite close enough to people who are different, but living within close enough range to see things they might have done wrong on local news, is potent. It leads to absurd memes like the “knockout game” (the suburban legend that gangs of black teens were going around punching random white strangers in the head). It leads to fake news like European towns that have become “no-go zones” for non-Muslims. It leads to the US president saying that MS-13 has taken over whole cities in the US, and that the federal government needs to “liberate” those towns for its citizens.
If there are places that are simply forsaken to some Americans, places so alien to them that their very existence is a threat, diversity seems either already dead or not worth keeping alive.
Pluralism is a hard question. Of course it’s a hard question. But when you look at a few hundred refugees on Manus Island and see the beginnings of an inevitable horde that will overflow your country, you lose any perspective on that question. You lose any faith in pluralism entirely. All you have, instead, is a desperate need to cling to an America you deem so fragile it can’t bear one extra inch of stretch or ounce of weight. It’s a neurotic, smothering love.