Last Monday, when President Trump tweeted that his Administration would stage nationwide immigration raids the following week, with the goal of deporting “millions of illegal aliens,” agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement were suddenly forced to scramble. The agency was not ready to carry out such a large operation. Preparations that would typically take field officers six to eight weeks were compressed into a few days, and, because of Trump’s tweet, the officers would be entering communities that now knew they were coming. “It was a dumb-shit political move that will only hurt the agents,” John Amaya, a former deputy chief of staff at ice, told me. On Saturday, hours before the operation was supposed to start in ten major cities across the country, the President changed course, delaying it for another two weeks.
On Sunday, I spoke to an ice officer about the week’s events. “Almost nobody was looking forward to this operation,” the officer said. “It was a boondoggle, a nightmare.” Even on the eve of the operation, many of the most important details remained unresolved. “This was a family op. So where are we going to put the families? There’s no room to detain them, so are we going to put them in hotels?” the officer said. On Friday, an answer came down from ice leadership: the families would be placed in hotels while ice figured out what to do with them. That, in turn, raised other questions. “So the families are in hotels, but who’s going to watch them?” the officer continued. “What happens if the person we arrest has a U.S.-citizen child? What do we do with the children? Do we need to get booster seats for the vans? Should we get the kids toys to play with?” Trump’s tweet broadcasting the operation had also created a safety issue for the officers involved. “No police agency goes out and says, ‘Tomorrow, between four and eight, we’re going to be in these neighborhoods,’ ” the officer said.
The idea for the operation took hold in the White House last September, two months after a federal judge had ordered the government to stop separating parents and children at the border. At the time, the number of families seeking asylum was rising steadily, and Administration officials were determined to toughen enforcement. A D.H.S. official told me that, in the months before the operation was proposed, “a major focus” of department meetings “was concern about the fact that people on the non-detained docket”—asylum seekers released into the U.S. with a future court date—“are almost never deported.” By January, a tentative plan had materialized. The Department of Justice developed a “rocket docket” to prioritize the cases of asylum seekers who’d just arrived in the country and missed a court date—in their absence, the government could swiftly secure deportation orders against them. D.H.S. then created a “target list” of roughly twenty-five hundred immigrant family members across the country for deportation; eventually, the Administration aimed to arrest ten thousand people using these methods.
From the start, however, the plan faced resistance. The Secretary of D.H.S., Kirstjen Nielsen, argued that the arrests would be complicated to carry out, in part because American children would be involved. (Many were born in the U.S. to parents on the “target list.”) Resources were already limited, and an operation on this scale would divert attention from the border, where a humanitarian crisis was worsening by the day. The acting head of ice, Ron Vitiello, a tough-minded former Border Patrol officer, shared Nielsen’s concerns. According to the Washington Post, these reservations weren’t “ethical” so much as logistical: executing such a vast operation would be extremely difficult, with multiple moving pieces, and the optics could be devastating. Four months later, Trump effectively fired them. Vitiello’s replacement at ice, an official named Mark Morgan—who’s already been fired once by Trump and regained the President’s support after making a series of appearances on Fox News—subsequently announced that ice would proceed with the operation.
Late last week, factions within the Administration clashed over what to do. The acting secretary of D.H.S., Kevin McAleenan, urged caution, claiming that the operation was a distraction and a waste of manpower. Among other things, a $4.5 billion funding bill to supply further humanitarian aid at the border has been held up because Democrats worried that the Administration would use the money for enforcement operations. McAleenan had been meeting with members of both parties on the Hill, and there appeared to be signs of progress, before the President announced the ice crackdown. According to an Administration official, McAleenan argued that the operation would also threaten a string of recent gains made by the President. The Trump Administration had just secured a deal with the Mexican government to increase enforcement at the Guatemalan border, and it expanded a massive new program called Remain in Mexico, which has forced some ten thousand asylum seekers to wait indefinitely in northern Mexico. “Momentum was moving in the right direction,” the official said.
On the other side of the argument were Stephen Miller, at the White House, and Mark Morgan, at ice. In the days before and after Trump’s Twitter announcement, Morgan spoke regularly with the President, who was circumventing McAleenan, Morgan’s boss. In meetings with staff, Morgan boasted that he had a direct line to the President, according to the ice officer, who told me it was highly unusual for there to be such direct contact between the agency head and the White House. “It should be going to the Secretary, which I find hilarious, actually, because Morgan was already fired once by this Administration,” the officer said.
Over the weekend, the President agreed to halt the operation. But it’s far from certain whether McAleenan actually got the upper hand. Officials in the White House authorized ice to issue a press release insinuating that someone had leaked important details about the operation and therefore compromised it. “Any leak telegraphing sensitive law-enforcement operations is egregious and puts our officers’ safety in danger,” an ice spokesperson said late Saturday afternoon. This was a puzzling statement given that it was Trump who first publicized the information about the operation. But the White House’s line followed a different script: some members of the Administration, as well as the former head of ice, Thomas Homan, were publicly accusing McAleenan of sharing information with reporters in an attempt to undermine the operation.
For Homan, his involvement in the Administration’s internal fight marked an unexpected return to the main stage. Last year, he resigned as acting head of ice after the Senate refused to confirm him to the post. Earlier this month, Trump announced, on Fox News, that Homan would be returning to the Administration as the President’s new border tsar, but Homan, who hadn’t been informed of the decision, has remained noncommittal. Still, according to the Administration official, Homan and the President talk by phone regularly. Over the weekend, Homan, who has since become an on-air contributor to Fox News, appeared on television to attack McAleenan personally. “You’ve got the acting Secretary of Homeland Security resisting what ice is trying to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, the President spent the weekend trying to leverage the delayed operation to pressure congressional Democrats. If they did not agree to a complete overhaul of the asylum system at the border, Trump said, he’d greenlight the ice operation once more. “Two weeks,” he tweeted, “and big Deportation begins.” At the same time, his Administration was under fire for holding immigrant children at a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas. Two hundred and fifty infants, children, and teen-agers have spent weeks in squalid conditions; they have been denied food, water, soap, and toothbrushes, and there’s limited access to medicine in the wake of flu and lice outbreaks. “If the Democrats would change the asylum laws and the loopholes,” Trump said, “everything would be solved immediately.” And yet, last week, when an Administration lawyer appeared before the Ninth Circuit to answer for the conditions at the facility, which were in clear violation of a federal agreement on the treatment of children in detention, she said that addressing them was not the government’s responsibility. Michelle Brané, of the Women’s Refugee Commission, told me, “The Administration is intentionally creating chaos at the border and detaining children in abusive conditions for political gain.” (On Monday, Customs and Border Protection transferred all but thirty children from the Clint facility; it isn’t yet clear where, exactly, they’ll go.)
President Obama was never popular among ice’s rank and file, but the detailed list of enforcement priorities he instituted, in 2014, which many in the agency initially resented as micromanagement, now seemed more sensible—and even preferable to the current state of affairs. The ice officer said, “One person told me, ‘I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the Obama rules. We removed more people with the rules we had in place than with all this. It was much easier when we had the priorities. It was cleaner.’ ” Since the creation of ice, in 2003, enforcement was premised on the idea that officers would primarily go after criminals for deportation; Trump, who views ice as a political tool to showcase his toughness, has abandoned that framework entirely. “I don’t even know what we’re doing now,” the officer said. “A lot of us see the photos of the kids at the border, and we’re wondering, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” The influx of Central American migrants, the officer noted, has been an issue for more than a decade now, spanning three Presidential administrations. “No one built up the infrastructure to handle this, and now people are suffering at the border for it. They keep saying they were caught flat footed. That’s a bald-faced fucking lie.”
One is solidly Republican and will stay that way; the other leans Democratic. And then there are the in-betweeners.
At Nancy Pelosi’s news conference last week, a reporter asked her about Joe Biden’s comments on his congenial dealings in the senate of the 1970s with the Southern Democrats James O. Eastland and Herman Talmadge, who were both staunch opponents of Civil Rights legislation and racial integration:
There’s been a back‑and‑forth between Vice President Biden and some of the candidates. Do you think that it is helpful to the party to sort of fight that fight over who best represents the party when it comes to sensitivities about race?
“That’s not what this election is about,” Pelosi answered in a severe tone. “This election is about how we connect with the American people, addressing their kitchen table needs.”
Reporters continued to press Pelosi: “What do you think about Vice President Biden’s words, referencing his work with segregationists and talking about his idea of civility?”
She shot back: “I have answered that question, and that’s all I’m going to say.”
The intensity of the exchange shows how determined key Democratic leaders are to keep the party focused on the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, health care and financial stability and to shore up the gains the party made in 2018, especially among whites.
Pelosi’s response illustrates the deep fear among the same leaders that the agenda could shift to issues of race and immigration. These are issues that a cadre of newly elected progressive members of Congress including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — as well as Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, all with warmly enthusiastic followings — have brought to the fore. Race and immigration are just the issues Donald Trump and his Republican allies want to place front and center in 2020.
Underlying this is the recognition by many Democratic strategists of the continuing political centrality of less highly educated white voters. Marginal shifts in partisan balloting by the white working class have been a crucial determinant in the outcome of elections since 1968.
This non-college white constituency — pollster shorthand for both the white working class and the white middle class without college degrees — makes up a massive bloc of the electorate, with estimates ranging from 48 percent of the entire electorate in 2016, according to an analysis by Catalist, a liberal voter research group, to 54 percent, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.
Pete Brodnitz, founder and president of Expedition Strategies, a Democratic polling firm that has performed studies for the Democratic House Majority PAC, wrote by email that in 2018 he found that the white working class could be divided into five political categories:
- reliably Democratic, 33 percent;
- lean Democratic, 7 percent;
- true independents, 10 percent;
- lean Republican, 7 percent; and
- reliably Republican, 44 percent.
How each of these categories voted in 2016 shows the importance of these distinctions. In a poll of battleground House Districts, Hillary Clinton carried the reliably Democratic base by a solid 67-point margin (78-11) and the lean Democrats by 61 points (64-3). She lost the true independents by 16 percentage points (21-37). Trump won overwhelmingly among the lean Republican whites (73-12, a 61-point margin) and the solid Republicans by 84 points (88-4), according to the data collected by Expedition Strategies working with Normington/Petts, another Democratic polling firm.
“In almost every way, white non-college Democrats and white non-college Republicans are nothing alike,” Michael Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO, emailed in response to my inquiry.
Polling conducted by GQR, a Democratic firm, for the AFL-CIO, found that among the Republican white working class, 79 percent identify as Christian, two thirds of whom are evangelical or born again. Among the Democratic non-college electorate, 44 percent said they were Christian, and one third of them said they were evangelical or born again.
The Democrats are much younger, according to Podhorzer: 22 percent are Gen Z or Millennial compared with 12 percent of working class white Republicans. The Democratic members of the white working class are 59 percent female and 41 percent male, compared with 51 percent female, 49 percent male among Republican non-college whites.
Perhaps most important, the white non-college Republican and Democratic constituencies differ radically on policy and political beliefs.
Take favorability ratings of
- Black Lives Matter and
- Medicare for all.
Among working class white Democrats, the ratings are uniformly positive, according to AFL-CIO data: 89 percent, 80 percent and 85 percent. Among their white Republican counterparts, the ratings are uniformly dismal: 5 percent, 9 percent and 18 percent.
What this data shows is that Democrats should have little trouble retaining the support of members of the white working class who identify as Democrats, but they will struggle mightily to win over their Republican counterparts.
This divide leaves the small percentage of the white working class whose views put them in the middle ground between left and right up for grabs and likely to determine the outcome in 2020.
The AFL-CIO survey suggests that the roughly 10 percent of non-college whites who do not identify with either party may be reachable for Democratic candidates, but there are big hurdles.
For one thing, these self-described independents do not side with mainstream Democrats on the kinds of incendiary issues that President Trump loves to promote.
The AFL-CIO study examined four categories of voters: all Democrats; non-college white Democrats; independent non-college whites; and Republican non-college whites.
The survey asked, for example, whether voters agree or disagree with the statement “Social and economic problems in this country are largely due to individuals across races and origins refusing to work and expecting handouts.”
All Democrats, including white non-college Democratic respondents, took liberal stands, sharply disagreeing with the statement by 62 points (78-16) and 56 points (76-20). Independent voters in the white working class were in favor by 11 percentage points (52-41), and Republican respondents were solidly in agreement, by 72 points (84-12).
On a similar racially freighted question — “Social and economic problems in this country are largely due to certain groups failing to work hard and play by the rules” — Democrats disagreed by large margins, while independent white non-college voters showed greater conservatism, agreeing 54-36; Republican non-college whites strongly agreed, 79-12.
The accompanying graphic shows the pattern of opinion on three additional questions measuring what sociologists call “anti-black affect.”
AGREE: White people in the U.S. have certain advantages because of the color of their skin.
AGREE: Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for African-Americans to work their way out of the lower class.
DISAGREE: Ethnic groups like the Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
The next accompanying graphic illustrates hostility toward immigrants — or acceptance.
DISAGREE: Increase border security by building a fence along part of the U.S. border with Mexico.
DISAGREE: Deport undocumented immigrants to their native countries.
The AFL-CIO survey demonstrate why liberal Democratic leaders like Pelosi are resolved to stand clear of some of the issues that divide their party from independents. At the same time, it shows why Pelosi and others want to focus on so-called kitchen table issues.
On health care and economic matters, there is far more overlap between the views of Democrats as a whole and independent white working class voters.
Support for a tax on wealth in excess of $100 million tops 90 percent among Democrats, while white working class independents support such a proposal 59-25.
A proposal supported by Democrats of all stripes — “Having the government produce generic versions of lifesaving drugs, even if it required revoking patents held by pharmaceutical companies” — has the backing of non-college white independents, 56-25.
By two to one, white independents agreed with two liberal populist statements: that “social and economic problems in this country are largely due to a handful of wealthy and powerful people rigging the rules to their advantage” and that “social and economic problems in this country are largely due to a handful of wealthy and powerful people dividing us against each other so they can take more for themselves.”
Two proposals backed by some of the Democratic presidential candidates — Abolish ICE and Medicare for All — do not sell well among white non-college independents, who opposed the two initiatives by 71-15 and 48-31.
Podhorzer argues that in the 2020 battleground districts and states the contest will be fought over the 13 percent who are swing voters, a group he calls “partisan bystanders.” He described them as “voters who either have a very negative view of both parties or do not have strong feelings about either party. These voters favored Democrats in the 2018 midterms by 11 points after favoring Trump by 6 points in 2016.”
According to Podhorzer, almost half (46 percent) of the partisan bystanders are “white non-college, so this group, especially white non-college women, is going to be a battleground for both campaigns.”
Podhorzer makes a key point: In his view, this 13 percent is receptive to Democratic appeals because they
are looking for answers to the basic economic challenges they face. That issues like health care are much more important to them makes sense given that just about everyone who cares about issues like immigration has already picked sides and won’t be moved.”
In some respects, the AFL-CIO poll provides ammunition to the Third Way, a centrist Democratic advocacy group.
Jonathan Cowan, president and co-founder of Third Way, argued in an email that:
Going forward to 2020, there are lines that Democrats can’t cross if they want to win nationally and hold the House and gain in the Senate. Medicare for All is one of those lines. But there are others like abolishing ICE, a guaranteed federal job, and certain climate proposals that ignore the economic circumstances of the interior of the country.
A Third Way survey of Democratic primary voters, conducted in May by David Binder Research, found that calls to abolish ICE in particular are problematic. In fact, Democratic presidential candidates are backing away from their earlier support of the idea, despite the horror show that is happening on the border right now.
The Third Way poll found that Democratic voters of all stripes prefer a candidate who promises to expand employment opportunity to one who would guarantee everyone a government job; and these voters prefer a candidate who would ensure “that every student who enters college can finish with a degree” to one “who supports free 4-year college for all students.”
In the case of health care, the Third Way survey of Democratic primary voters found that a plurality, 42.9 percent, preferred a candidate “who wants an annual cap that limits the costs people pay while making sure everyone has insurance coverage” while 35.2 percent prefer a candidate “who wants to pass a single-payer, Medicare for All government-run plan.”
Both Democratic and Republican strategists are putting all of these findings under a microscope because in a highly competitive election, seemingly small shifts can determine the outcome.
Take the difference between Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016 and the performance of House Democratic candidates.
In 2016, all non-college whites went 60-34 for Trump over Clinton, while voting 58-38 in favor of Republican House candidates, according to Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts and senior researcher at the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.
This may seem insignificant, but if Clinton had been able to match the margin of Democratic House candidates, not only would she have picked up 2.9 million votes nationwide, she would have won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined total of 383,000 votes instead of losing them by a total of 79,646 votes.
One interpretation of Democratic success in taking control of the House in 2018 suggests a strategy of moderation, while using animosity to Trump to boost turnout in hard core Democratic constituencies, including among minorities, young voters and single women. If the 2018 House give hints on the type of voters who offer the best targets for 2020, it is worth recalling that more than three quarters of the newly Democratic seats are in centrist districts.
According to data provided by Third Way, the new Democratic districts are predominately upscale, with higher than average percentages of well-educated, well-off whites and lower than average percentages of less-well-off whites.
However, the demographics of these districts mask the significant gains Democrats made in 2018 among non-college, less affluent whites. This becomes clear in an analysis of the 2018 election by Yair Ghitza, chief scientist at Catalist.
“There has been a lot of attention paid to the Democratic victories in suburban areas, but we find that Democratic gains were actually largest in rural areas,” Ghitza wrote:
These gains weren’t enough to get over 50 percent and win seats in many rural districts, so they have escaped much of the mainstream election analysis to this point. These changes are nonetheless important, particularly because they were large in many of the Midwest battleground states that will no doubt be important in 2020.
Ghitza provided further support for the Democratic strategy of going after white non-college voters by noting that 2018 Democratic gains were “largely driven by voters who voted for Trump in 2016 and voted Democratic in 2018.”
It is no wonder, then, that Pelosi is not the only party leader warning Democrats to be wary of the danger of focusing too much on social and cultural issues in the heat of the primaries. Such counsel also comes from African-American Democrats.
Take Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who suggested to the Washington Post last week that there should be less attention paid to Biden’s stumble on race: “African-Americans are worried about the safety of their families. They’re worried about jobs. They’re worried about health care, diabetes, cancer, and they’re worried about how to pay for kids’ college.”
Richmond was joined by Representative John Lewis, who said he didn’t think Biden’s remarks were “offensive,” before adding, “During the height of the civil rights movement we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan — people who opposed us, even people who beat us, and arrested us and jailed us.”
The Rev. J.M. Flemming, president of the Greenville NAACP, told the Washington Post:
“I’m not going to let anybody sidetrack folks that I know about who are looking at Biden, when we ought to be looking at the things said by Trump. Nobody is making anybody out to be a perfect person, but what Trump is doing, for me, that’s far worse.”
The concerns of African-Americans, in this view, are substantially the same as the concerns of the millions of white working class voters who remain open to Democratic candidates — or at least they coincide in critically important ways.
The fate of the Democratic Party in 2020 hangs on this premise and on a united resistance to Trump’s malign strategy of divide and conquer.
Immigration quotas should be based on how much the host country has ruined other countries.
There is a lot of debate these days about whether the United States owes its African-American citizens reparations for slavery. It does. But there is a far bigger bill that the United States and Europe have run up: what they owe to other countries
- for their colonial adventures,
- for the wars they imposed on them,
- for the inequality they have built into the world order,
- for the excess carbon they have dumped into the atmosphere.
The creditor countries aren’t seriously suggesting that the West send sacks of gold bullion every year to India or Nigeria. Their people are asking for fairness:
- for the borders of the rich countries to be opened to goods and people, to Indian textiles as well as Nigerian doctors.
- In seeking to move, they are asking for immigration as reparations.
Today, a quarter of a billion people are migrants. They are moving because the rich countries have stolen the future of the poor countries. Whether it is Iraqis and Syrians fleeing the effects of illegal American wars, or Africans seeking to work for their former European colonial masters, or Guatemalans and Hondurans trying to get into the country that peddles them guns and buys their drugs: They are coming here because we were there.
Before you ask them to respect our borders, ask yourself: Has the West ever respected anyone’s borders?
A vast majority of migrants move from a poor to a less poor country, not a rich one. Immigration quotas should be based on how much the host country has ruined other countries. Britain should have quotas for Indians and Nigerians; France for Malians and Tunisians; Belgium for very large numbers of Congolese.
And when they come, they should be allowed to bring their families and stay — unlike the “guest workers” who were enticed to build up the postwar labor force of the colonizers and then asked to leave when their masters were done exploiting them.
The Dominican Republic, where the United States propped up the dictator Rafael Trujillo for three decades, should be high on the American preference list. So should Iraq, upon which we imposed a war that resulted in 600,000 deaths. Justice now demands that we let in 600,000 Iraqis: for each death we caused there, someone should get a chance at a new life here.
Some 12 million Africans were enslaved and carried across the Atlantic by European powers. Should not 12 million people from Africa be allowed to live in the countries enriched by the toil of their ancestors? Both will be better off: the African still suffering from what slavery has done to his country, and the host country that will again benefit from African labor, but this time without enormous pain and for a fair wage.
Just as there is a carbon tax on polluting industries, there should be a “migration tax” on the nations who got rich while emitting greenhouse gases. The United States is responsible for one-third of the excess carbon in the atmosphere; Europe, another one-quarter. A hundred million refugees fleeing hurricanes and droughts will have to be resettled by the end of the century. The United States should take a third, and Europe another quarter.
A huge bill would come to the West, but it is one it should look forward to paying. Without immigration, America’s economic growth would have been 15 percent lower from 1990 to 2014; Britain’s would have been a full 20 percent lower. Immigrants are 14 percent of the American population, but
It’s a stretch to place the names of Jared Kushner and Henry Cabot Lodge in the same sentence; it’s difficult even to imagine that Lodge, the aristocratic Massachusetts senator who dominated the nation’s immigration debate from the 1890s into the 1920s, would give Kushner the time of day. But Kushner’s new immigration plan, aimed at reducing immigration from specific nations through the virtual elimination of what he and others have disparaged as “chain migration,” and the simultaneous valorization of the highly educated, is simply a version of a blatantly discriminatory effort Lodge initiated more than a century ago.
A man of uncommon refinement and even greater arrogance, Lodge was a Harvard PhD., the erudite author of more than a dozen books and, in many ways, the archetype of the Boston Brahmin of a century ago. His friend Thomas B. Reed, speaker of the House in the closing years of the 19th century, said Lodge arose from “thin soil, highly cultivated.” Lodge himself celebrated his fellow Brahmins for “their intense belief in themselves, their race, and their traditions.” His idea of the west, said another colleague, was Pittsfield, Mass. Look at John Singer Sargent’s remarkable likeness of the young Lodge that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. You almost feel you are despoiling him by your very presence.
As well you might have been, if you were Italian, or Greek, or a Russian Jew or from any of the other national groups he had in mind in 1895, when he rose on the Senate floor to introduce the first restrictive immigration bill aimed at Eastern and Southern Europeans. The widening streams of emigres pouring out of the impoverished lands between the Baltic and the Mediterranean had broadened to flood stage, and Lodge determined that the best way to keep them out was to make them submit to a literacy test.
Aware of the scant educational opportunities in most of these countries, he told his fellow senators that his bill “will bear most heavily upon the Italians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, and Asiatics, and very lightly, or not at all, upon English-speaking emigrants.” And, he argued, why should it be otherwise? “The races most affected” by his test, he explained, were those “with which the English-speaking people have never hitherto assimilated, and are alien to the great body of the people of the United States.”
Lodge’s talk was a hit. His closest friend, Theodore Roosevelt — at the time the New York City police commissioner — called it “an A-1 speech,” which pleased Lodge greatly. He was probably even more delighted with the reaction of the “Russian-Nihilistic Club” of Chicago, which burned him in effigy.
Eagerly endorsing the House version of the bill, Lodge’s Massachusetts colleague Rep. Elijah A. Morse declared himself delighted to see that it would exclude “undesirable immigration” from “southern Europe, from Russia, from Italy, and from Greece” — people, he said, who brought to the United States little else than “an alimentary canal and an appetite.”
Lodge’s literacy test bill passed with ease. But on President Grover Cleveland’s very last day in office, he struck it down with a veto, and there were not enough votes in the Senate to override.
Over the next 20 years, Lodge and his colleagues tried again and again, introducing a version of the literacy test into nearly every Congress. Three times it was approved by both chambers; three times it was struck down by veto. Only with anti-European fervor spiking on the brink of World War I, and new theories of “racial eugenics” shaping public debate, was it finally enacted over President Woodrow Wilson’s second veto, in 1917.
But for the anti-immigrationists, the new law was too little too late, and rendered ineffective by a shapely irony: Its two-decade presence on the congressional front burner had encouraged the education of the very people he wished to keep out. The Immigration Restriction League executive committee reported the baleful news that the Italian government was “spending millions on their schools in the last few months in view of the pending bill.” An IRL official wrote, “It is probable that primary schools will be presently established in many parts of Europe,” and consequently the newly enacted literacy test “is likely to diminish in value as a means of restriction as time goes on.”
A few years later, the xenophobes finally got what they wanted when Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1924, which didn’t mess with half-measures: It slashed immigration by means of brutal quotas aimed at precisely those countries Lodge had singled out nearly three decades earlier. Where once more than 220,000 Italians arrived each year, the number was reduced by the new quota to fewer than 6,500. In 1921, the lands comprising most of the former Russian Empire had sent nearly 190,000 emigrants to the United States; the 1924 law accommodated exactly 7,346.
For the next 41 years, this brutally exclusionary act remained in place, shaping the composition of the nation, and dooming thousands — if not millions — to deprivation and death. When it was finally revoked by Congress in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the new law on Liberty Island, in the shadow of the great statue that had been designed to welcome the unwanted. Had he chosen to give a history of what the 1924 act had been intended to do, Johnson might have invoked the words that Cleveland used in his veto message back in 1897: The literacy test,Cleveland had said, was “the pretext for exclusion.”
I don’t think Lodge would have disagreed, nor, if he’s being honest with himself, would Kushner. A plan that sets up “educational standards” as the primary benchmark for immigration isn’t likely to certify too many people fleeing from, say, Honduras or Yemen. Reeling in the numbers of immigrants granted priority to reunite with family members already here will similarly disadvantage much of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Jared Kushner — and Stephen Miller and President Trump — likely know very little about Henry Cabot Lodge. But he would be proud of them.