Donald Trump’s comment about “shithole countries” during the infamous immigration deal on January 11, 2018, has created widespread outrage across the US and the world. He said this in reference to potentially stopping immigration from countries like Haiti and Nigeria. The assertion that was lost in the furor on his disparaging statement was the bit that followed his comment – that he’d rather welcome immigrants from places like Norway. As a sociologist of immigration, this is the part that struck me as the most alarming.
That remark, substantiated by the numerous anti-immigrant measures taken in the last year by the administration, is heavily reminiscent of the racialized history of American immigration policy of the early late 19th and 20th centuries. This was an era when immigration policies were constructed to protect the American identity as white and European. Any other identity was perceived as a threat to American way of living.
Laws were created to keep Blacks, Asians, refugees and anyone perceived as unassimilable out of the United States. All this changed in 1965 when national origin quotas were abolished and laws were passed to allow humanitarian immigration, family-based immigration and employment-based immigration from most countries in the world.
Trump’s rhetoric and actions are uncannily similar to some of the most racist immigration policies the US have had in the last century.
Within days of taking office, Trump with help of his appointees, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, signed a series of executive orders that amplified the fears that many immigrants and people of colour were feeling during his controversial presidential campaign. These ranged from the travel ban from six predominantly Muslim countries, trying to cut all federal funding for sanctuary cities for immigrants, to announcing the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program passed by Obama. The latter program helped to protect 800,000 young undocumented immigrant children from deportation who came to the US as children.
Most recently, the Trump administration announced the stripping of the Temporary Protected Status program, an immigration programme that allows immigrants whose countries are affected by war and natural disasters, to stay and work legally in the US. Thousands of Salvadoran refugees are likely to be affected by this ruling.
In the new year, Trump has escalated his hardline on immigration, presenting a list of demands, that include construction of a wall on the US-Mexico border, hiring 10,000 immigration agents, cracking down on unaccompanied minors from Latin American countries and stopping family reunification policies for American residents.
His administration has also threatened to roll back the Obama era ruling that allows spouses of temporary highly-skilled workers on H-1B visa to obtain work permits if they are in a queue for lawful permanent residency or green card approval. The people, who are to be most affected by this rollback, are Indian workers on H-1B visas and their spouses on H-4 visas, as they comprise the largest group in the US on those visas.
My research on Indian families on employment visas shows that they are definitely in a precarious position. It will further destabilise immigrant families and make them insecure and less optimistic about their futures in the United States. The macro-and micro-economic considerations and fallouts of this policy remain to be examined. The administration seems to have reacted to populist positions, not data-driven ones. Families like Indian families on H-1B and H-4 visa who can leave will probably plan on returning to their home countries or move to other parts of the world with better family-friendly immigration policies.
The Trump administration is making clear it’s anti-immigrant stance. The actions and threats of this administration are, perceptibly and clearly, directed toward immigrant families of colour and are based in ideologies of American protectionism – a protectionism that is racialized and based on further othering of already marginalised populations. It has managed to create a constant strain of fear and panic that has deeply destabilised immigrant families of color.
One positive outcome that I hope for is solidarities across immigrant groups and concerted efforts at organising and resistance. Immigrants with higher social, cultural and economic capital like highly-skilled Indian immigrants in the US often see themselves as model minorities and as more desirable and deserving of rights and privileges. The stance of this administration is forcing all immigrants of colour to reassess their safety and security in the US.
I hope that more privileged immigrants, American citizens and concerned individuals see this as an opportunity to reach out and form alliances with marginalised immigrant groups, people of colour and those whose rights are being dismantled every day by this administration. As history has shown that the only real way that America stands out in the world is when it comes together to fight against injustices levied at people on whose back the nation was built and on whose backs it runs.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)
Pallavi Banerjee is assistant professor of sociology at University of Calgary in Canada. Her research interests are situated at the intersection of sociology of immigration, gender, and transnational labour.