When you have so many immigrants being admitted, they tend to cluster together, they tend to maybe be a bit more slow in learning the English language, to becoming acculturated, to becoming patriotic Americans,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) told NPR reporter John Burnett in early February.
Smith has been a genteel nativist for decades, but the content of his character came into sharper focus in 2010 when his selection to chair the House Judiciary Committee raised the visibility of his anti-immigrant, and more specifically anti-Latino, legislation.
That year Smith put together an anti-immigrant trifecta that included: a “show-your-papers” bill that would have made ethnicity probable cause for state and local police to demand proof of citizenship or legal residency; an anchor-baby bill that would have excluded the children of immigrants from the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment, which says “all persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States”; and a bill that would have made the E-Verify employment screen mandatory, which would have been reasonable if E-Verify was not wildly inaccurate in identifying legal residents.
Smith, who has served in the House since 1987, could not win an election in a district anchored by San Antonio were it not for the gerrymandering practice known as “bleaching,” which has ensured that roughly 57 percent of his district is “Anglo” with Latinos hovering just below 30 percent.
The only firewall standing between these new nativists and public policy is the Democratic minority in the Senate.
Emboldened by a president who began his campaign with a rank, racist riff about Mexicans—“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”—Smith and other nativist Republicans in Congress are determined to extend the practice of “bleaching” legislative districts to the entire nation, to create a whiter America.
The occasion for Smith’s comments about the ghettoization of Latinos was an NPR report on an immigration reform bill he is co-sponsoring with two confederates in the Senate, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and David Perdue of Georgia. At a time when approximately 11 million undocumented residents of the United States (and the businesses that employ them) could benefit from legislation that would normalize their residency status, the three Southern Republicans have something entirely different in mind: a rewrite of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which made legal immigration to the United States less restrictive.
And it’s legal immigration that Smith, Cotton, and Perdue are targeting. In the spirit of the Immigration Act of 1924, which closed American borders to Southern and Eastern Europeans, in particular Italians and Ashkenazi Jews, the 2017 Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act (RAISE) targets the largest category of legal immigrants to the United States, green card applicants attempting to join family members. It would also reduce refugees to 50 percent of current admissions, and end the Diversity Visa Lottery, which provides visas to residents of countries with low immigration rates to the United States.
Cotton told NPR that the number of green cards issued each year, about one million, is excessive.
“In one year, this would reduce it to around 600,000. Over the span of the 10-year window, it would fall to about 500,000.”
The bill would also dramatically reduce the number of refugees offered permanent residence from 85,000 (in 2016) to 50,000. (The U.S. population is 321 million; Canada, with a population of 38 million will accept 57,000 refugees in 2017.)
The bill, and there will be more to follow from the congressional Republicans preparing exclusionary legislation, is informed by the idea that there are too many immigrants.
“The goal here is to get our immigration levels back to historical norms, to take something of a pause to allow the economy to catch up with the immigrants that we have allowed into our country over the last two generations,” Cotton told NPR, “and to focus on the well-being of American citizens, those citizens who are here today, many of whom are struggling economically.”
Republicans preparing anti-immigrant legislation are working in concert with Trump administration officials known for their aversion to immigrants: Attorney General Jeff Sessions who as a U.S. Senator advocated the reduction of the foreign population in the country; Steve Bannon, who as executive editor of the extreme-right Breitbart News enthusiastically published white supremacists; and Julie Kirchner, a special adviser to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who previously directed the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “hate group.”
The only firewall standing between these new nativists and public policy is the Democratic minority in the Senate, and perhaps federal judges like James Robart, who promptly put Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban” on hold.