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Sunday, August 20, 2017

So the cover has now been ripped off the rationalizations about President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, the tissue paper peeled away from his insistence that he only wanted to get rid of terrorists, rapists and drug-dealers. Back during the campaign, you’ll recall, Trump and his supporters insisted that their goal was to rid the country of criminals who were sneaking in illegally.

Even then, most voters knew better. Trump was clearly pandering to those white Americans who were unhappy with the cultural changes of the last half-century, including the shifting demographics that are weakening their political and social influence. Trump’s election was, in large measure, a backlash against the first black president.

Now, Trump has enthusiastically embraced a new Senate proposal that would limit legal immigration, with a goal of cutting the number of immigrants in half within 10 years. It’s refreshing, actually, to have this agenda out in the open: Trump and his allies want to make America white again.

That’s a longstanding goal of some of his closer compatriots, including his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Indeed, Bannon’s views are more xenophobic than those of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Sen. David Perdue (R-GA).

Their bill would limit the ability of naturalized American citizens and legal residents to bring in their relatives, something current law generously allows. They would grant preferences to English-speakers, business owners and the highly educated.

Bannon, by contrast, once ranted that “engineering schools are all full of people from South Asia and East Asia. … They’re coming in here to take these jobs.” Meanwhile, he claimed, American students “can’t get engineering degrees; they can’t get into these graduate schools because all these foreign students come.”

That’s of a piece with the nationalism of some of the Republican Party’s more xenophobic thinkers. Several of them have complained for decades about a change in immigration policy pushed through by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in the mid-1960s. It allowed people from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East to come to the United States in large numbers, rather than restricting legal access mostly to people from Western Europe, as was the case before.

The ultraconservative Pat Buchanan wrote a book called Suicide of a Superpower, in which he forecasts a swift decline for a nation that has allowed itself, in his view, to be overrun by people of color. Journalist Peter Brimelow — himself an immigrant from Great Britain — founded a web-based magazine called VDARE, which traffics in ugly racial stereotypes and longs for a whiter America.

Cotton and Perdue claim that their bill is copied from policies put in place by Canada and Australia, both of which use a “merit-based” system that awards points for job skills and English-language proficiency. But both of those countries take in more immigrants, based on their populations, than the United States does. (Immigrants account for about 22 percent of Australia’s population, about 20 percent of Canada’s and about 13 percent of ours, according to the Migration Policy Institute.) The United States is not in danger of having its social safety net overwhelmed by foreigners.

Still, there are thoughtful conservatives — among them, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, an immigrant from Canada — who argue that the United States would be better served by an immigration policy that favors those who are better educated. Indeed, research does show that some low-skilled Americans may be aced out of entry-level jobs by low-skilled immigrants.

But most economists believe that we are better off with an immigration policy that welcomes newcomers. Many of those low-skilled immigrants take jobs that Americans simply won’t do — jobs such as plucking chickens and harvesting crops. Besides, immigrants tend to have more children than native-born citizens, which has helped the United States avoid the economic slump that befalls countries with too many elderly retirees and not enough working-age adults.

Of course, for many Trump supporters, all those black and brown babies are the problem. It doesn’t matter how hard their parents work or how well they speak English. They make the country look different — and that, apparently, is unacceptable.

Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.