The Closing of the Golden Door: When Fear Became U.S. Immigration Policy

10/14/2017 09:35 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2017

Immigration policy is one of the toughest issues facing the U.S. and its core beliefs and values. Both political parties are doing their best to bury or avoid this issue. Our politicians would rather wrestle with the health issue and the tax reform issue than start thinking about what to do with our immigration policy.

The issue has many strands. Should the U.S. accept more displaced persons from other countries, especially if they are poor, black, or Muslim? Should we keep out, even ban, Muslims because they have a different religion and may even include some terrorists? Should the U.S. put up a Great Wall to keep out more Mexicans from slipping into the country? Should the U.S. government intensify its deportation of illegal Mexicans, and should this include deporting the Dreamers, young Mexicans who were born here and became Americanized? Should our immigration policy give preference to immigrants coming from traditional countries bringing in our new immigrants, namely Ireland, Poland, Russia and various Eastern European countries? Should we open our doors to more immigrants from Asia, namely Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans who are highly industrious and peaceful and whose religions don’t threaten us? Should we adopt Canada’s approach to immigration favoring attracting the rich and educated from other countries?

The need for clear thinking on these issues has never been greater. The policies that we adopt can fundamentally change the American character and our fundamental beliefs and values. It can end up painting a picture of America to the rest of the world that will puzzle, disturb and maybe alienate them.

Let’s examine one strand in this messy issue of immigration. Donald Trump came riding into the American Presidency on the slogan "Let's Make America Great Again." He rode in on the votes of a large group of “forgotten” working class Americans of low-income and poor education who are bewildered by the changes going on in the country, including same sex marriage, homosexuality, transsexual role changes, abortion rights. His political base see the ascendency of black Americans, the inflow of illegal Mexicans, the rising number of Asians outperforming Americans in America’s classrooms, and the inflow of Muslims building mosques and praying and dressing differently.

In the midst of these dizzying changes, Donald Trump wins a Nevada primary election on February 24, 2016 and celebrates by saying ‘I Love the Poorly Educated!’ One observer spots the anomaly: “Trump sits on a gold toilet. Dumb people voted for him.” How does such a rich man have such strong appeal to down-and-out Americans? Could it be because he says to them "Americans make too much money," as if he plans to do something about this if elected President.

There is a hidden meaning behind Trump’s slogan to “Make America Great Again.” His slogan is code for “Let’s Make America White again.” Trump has tapped into the economic insecurity that globalization has created. With decades of outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and stagnant and depressed wages across the Rust Belt, the threat on livelihoods is real. While CEOs saw huge gains in their pay checks, the common worker was shown a pink slip. The result? An overwhelming sense of loss and insecurity. Instead of blaming corporate policy and decisions made by politicians supporting globalization, the GOP has deflected the blame: immigrants are the reason why Americans don’t have good jobs.

By blaming growing income inequality on immigrants rather than corporate forces, the GOP and Trump are deceiving their supporters. Trump has sensed that the white person, especially the white male, feels displaced and overwhelmed by the growing number of multi-cultural groups – and has tapped into this discomfort to actively fan the flames of hate and divisiveness. The gun industry exploits this fear as well.

Trump showed his real alignment with white males in his remarks during the white nationalist rally and street clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and members of the "alt-right" chanted "Heil Trump!" while marching through the Charlottesville streets. Dozens of demonstrators were hurt, and there occurred the horrific act of domestic terrorism – civilians plowed down by an American car driver. Trump’s initial statement was that the protestors and counter-protestors were equally to blame. It took another day or two before Trump finally came out condemning “the White Supremacists, Ku-Klux Klan, and the Nazis” as the instigators of this very un-peaceful protest. Trump knew that he needed to respond to the terrible news. But he also needed to avoid mentioning these groups because they are a part of his base constituency.

So, we ask, how did our democracy become so equivocal and fragile? How could the President of the United States not stand up immediately and come out against the groups that threaten our American values? By defining American values as “white values,” Trump has opened the door to hate-based politics. He is the “divider-in-chief.”

But it is more complicated than that. The moral failing is not limited to President Trump. He was put in power by at least four groups who supported him: Evangelicals, the Republican Party, the Corporate Class, and the desperate workers who lost their jobs in coal, steel, and other industries. All of them are implicit in this Administration’s moral failings.

The paradox is how Trump can appeal to the blue collar class and the rich at the same time. Consider that he only selects rich Americans to be in his cabinet. He favors rich people running for office. He distains people who aren’t rich like him. He doesn’t want to play golf with the working class. But he wants their votes. And he gets their votes, by appealing to the worst aspects of our unsolved dilemma - racism and segregation left over from the GOP’s southern strategy.

The hornet’s nest of Immigration is not limited to the USA. This is a worldwide scapegoat for the effects of unchecked globalization. Populist leaders have popped up in several countries, all ranting against the inflows of immigrants fleeing from other countries for their safety. Muslims in war-torn countries get into rickety boats and risk their lives to leave the Middle East hoping to land in Greece or Italy and make their way to Germany or England. Those wars are largely the fault of the West, but that fact is conveniently not factored into the equation. Meanwhile, populist leaders appeal to their native populations to keep them in fear, and blame immigrants for social upheaval. The Europeans fear they will lose their culture to the “hordes” of immigrants.

Immigration policies are key to how a nation wants to define itself, its value and beliefs. The USA is closing its borders. The idea of America – e pluribus unum – is now clearly under attack. President Trump would not admit his own immigrant parents or either one of his immigrant wives into the country today.

A nation built on immigration shuts its eyes and closes its mind. The land of the free will soon be no more. The golden door is swinging shut. We ignore the contributions immigrants make at our own peril.

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