Donald Trump’s new immigration bill is his latest effort to reverse the arc of racial justice

His goal is to preserve whiteness as a form of social and psychological capital.
His goal is to preserve whiteness as a form of social and psychological capital.
Image: AP Photo/Luca Bruno
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On Wednesday (August 2), US president Donald Trump’s White House rolled out the RAISE Act—an immigration bill noteworthy for its barely disguised roots in American racism.

The bill would cut the number of green card visas issued by the US in half. It fails to offer amnesty or a path to citizenship to the millions of undocumented people presently living and working inside the United States. And a recklessly prejudicial points system would determine whether potential immigrants gained entry. Listing the sorts of questions that would be asked of green card applicants, Donald Trump’s senior policy advisor Stephen Miller focused on three: “Does the applicant speak English? Can they support themselves and their families financially? Do they have a skill that will add to the U.S. economy? Are they being paid a high wage?”

The RAISE Act, in essence, is a part of the Trump administration’s broader efforts to shore up the racial character of the US. It is of a piece with Trump’s Mexican border wallMuslim travel ban, and robust deportation regime inherited from the Obama presidency. It is also tied to the announcement, just one day earlier, that the Department of Justice is gearing up to investigate whether whites have been subject to racial discrimination in college admissions.

These are all a part of a comprehensive racial reform strategy dredged from nativist fever swamps. Trump has benefited from the narrative that he understands the concerns of the white working class. But his actions demonstrate that his priority is not to improve this group, or any other’s, economic well-being, but to preserve whiteness as a form of social and psychological capital.

The RAISE Act gives priority to potential immigrants who are well-educated, middle-class, Anglophone, and not a drain on public resources. In many ways, the proposed legislation echoes the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, or “National Origins Act.” a vile piece of legislation fostered by eugenicists and their allies that was meant to stem the arrival of those “huddled masses” gathered far away on some distant “teeming shore,” and to fundamentally alter the racial composition of those who landed, disembarked, and joined the republic as citizens. The Act specifically established quotas linked to national origins and pegged those same quotas to an earlier moment in the country’s history, when better “racial stock” (the term of the day) from Northern Europe dominated immigration. Not surprisingly, the earlier immigration matrix was a part of a racial legal code that appealed to a disturbing group of peers, among them other settler societies eager to “whiten” their populations and European nations worried about the presence of undesirables.

In 1965, the law was replaced by the Immigration and Naturalization Act, a product of the Civil Rights era. The new legislation emphasized the broad-based need for skilled labor from around the world (not just from Northern Europe) and more generous policies of family reunification. The RAISE Act, in other words, seeks to narrow a doorway that people fought and died to expand.

Miller, known as a champion of alt-right causes, presented the bill as a gift to African-American and immigrant workers already in the country, who have suffered, as he described it, from “displacement” and wage depression when pitted against newer arrivals. But despite his angry assertion, there is no measurable proof that halving immigration and encouraging only Anglophone petitioners will produce tangible benefits for the most marginalized members of our community.

Miller also mentioned “blue collar workers” and “American workers” quite a bit, though it is even less clear how the RAISE Act would help the white working class still waiting for the promised return of coal and for the arrival of new manufacturing jobs. That is because Trump seems more interested in returning to white people that elusive sensation of “winning.” With few exceptions, white people dominate every industry and institution in this country, control state and federal governance, and are over-represented in every niche of popular culture. And yet many white voters say they are exhausted by diversity, and diminished, psychologically, by the mere presence of people of color who press for equal access to civil society. It’s tough for Trump to resurrect the moribund coal industry. He might be able to more easily conjure up the feeling of white dominance, if only he can alter – or propose to alter – the racial composition of the country.

The RAISE Act, then, is about changing the demographics of this country, ensuring a white majority, and—when coupled with ongoing, pernicious voter suppression efforts—ensuring the most conservative kind of GOP dominance for the foreseeable future. It is not about immigration reform, except along those narrow lines. And it certainly does nothing to improve wages and job security for working people, beef up benefits for poor families, foster a safer working environment, ensure job security, or do anything else that might actually expand the material conditions for a better life for the people who pluck chickens, punch cash registers, sew clothing, pick apples, and wash dishes in this country. Its emphasis on English language competency and a strictly limited notion of “family” are meant, instead, to appeal to an alienated white constituency that sees immigrants from Asia and Latin America as dangerously and permanently foreign and fecund.

Even if this reboot fails, the affective case for a National Origins Act redux will only grow stronger over time. The precarious position of working people in the economy will continue to worsen without intervention, and the white working class’s feelings of racial loss will continue to be focused like a laser beam on even-more-marginalized people of color. This is what the administration’s racial strategy is meant to exploit. Through the ban, the wall, the deportations, the quota, and that driving, deadly sense that white folks are now the victims, there will come not just a more solid groundworks for white supremacy, but also the stratospheric sentiment of racial victory.