It’s almost a cliché among many politicians arguing against comprehensive immigration reform that they aren’t against immigration, just illegal immigration. But that’s never been the case for some of the largest and most influential anti-immigration groups, which have long been pushing for severe cuts in legal immigration as well as policies that punish undocumented immigrants.
Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, the anti-immigration group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) laid out a wish list for Trump’s first year in office, which included ending the DACA and DAPA programs for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children and their families; ending birthright citizenship; and drastically reducing legal immigration. FAIR wanted legal immigration, which currently includes a little over a million people a year, to be cut to 300,000 people a year.
Today, Trump is planning to make good on campaign promises to reduce legal immigration, appearing with two Republican senators to introduce legislation that would cut legal immigration levels in half. Politico reported last month that Trump aide Stephen Miller, formerly a staffer to now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had been working with the two senators, David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, to craft the legislation.
While Trump and his supporters have framed this measure as implementing a “merit-based” immigration system, its practical effect would likely be to cut down on immigration from Latin America, Asia and Africa. An earlier version of the Cotton and Perdue bill would have reduced legal immigration by cutting down on visas for many family members of citizens and permanent residents, disproportionately affecting Latinos and Asian Americans hoping to reunite their families; eliminating the diversity visa lottery for people from countries with lower immigration rates to the U.S., the plurality of which go to people of African descent; and cutting down on refugee resettlement. Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for FAIR, called it “the perfect bill.”
FAIR’s founder, John Tanton, has openly fretted about increases in nonwhite immigration, warning of a “Latin onslaught” and stating, “I have come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist, it requires an European-American majority and a clear one at that.”
Anti-immigration activists have particularly focused on the 1965 immigration bill promoted by Sen. Ted Kennedy that ended national origin quotas imposed in the 1920s. Those 1920s quotas, as The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has written, “drastically limited immigration and made permanent restrictions designed to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans, particularly Italians and Jews, Africans, and Middle Easterners, barring Asian immigration entirely.” The Migration Policy Institute notes that the 1965 law “dramatically altered the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States” since compared “to almost entirely European immigration under the national-origins system, flows since 1965 have been more than half Latin American and one-quarter Asian.”
FAIR’s current president, Dan Stein, has called the 1965 law a retaliation “against Anglo-Saxon dominance and hubris.” Right-wing commentator Ann Coulter, who helped write the Trump campaign’s immigration policy, refers derogatorily to “Teddy Kennedy immigrants” from “peasant cultures.”
Sessions himself has praised the immigration restrictions that were in place between 1924 and 1965, saying the restrictions allowed the country to create “a solid middle class of America with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America.”