Donald Trump’s plans for undocumented immigrants are what get all the headlines. There’s the wall, of course, and his promises to dismantle deportation-relief programs for undocumented young people, known as Dreamers. There are his proposals to detain and deport millions of noncitizens. But lurking behind the president-elect’s frightening promises to crack down on people who live in the United States without documentation is a much larger ambition: to slow the nation’s massive demographic change by curtailing our legal-immigration system as well.
“Within just a few years, immigration as a share of the national population is set to break all historical records,” Trump said during an immigration address in Phoenix this past August. The goal of his presidency, he continued, would be “to keep immigration levels measured by population share within historical norms.” He added that the country ought “to choose immigrants based on merit—merit, skill, and proficiency. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
The reference to “historical norms” was an unusually circumspect choice of words for the president-elect, but it’s a phrase that ought to worry many. What Trump’s hint meant was a return to an explicitly racist immigration system put in place in the 1920s.
David FitzGerald, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, described the thinking among early-20th-century US lawmakers, who were alarmed by the unprecedented waves of poorer, swarthier immigrants coming to the nation at the time. “There was a near-consensus among policy-makers of the day,” FitzGerald told me in a conversation this past summer, “that the more Northwestern European immigrants there were, the more they would improve the stock [of the US population]. And the more they were from Southern and Eastern Europe, [the more] they would degrade the stock and contribute to crime.”
So Congress created a system designed to curb immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. Through a series of laws passed in the 1920s, lawmakers set annual quotas for immigrants from European nations. Using the 1890 Census as a benchmark, they capped the number of future immigrants from any given country at just 2 percent of the foreign-born population from that nation living in the United States in that year. Pegging the quotas to the 1890 Census was important, since it represented a time before the large flow of Southern and Eastern European immigrants to the United States commenced. Until the system was reformed in the 1960s, immigrants from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Ireland were entitled to fully 70 percent of the visas under this quota scheme, according to the Pew Research Center. What’s more, the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 completely barred immigration from East and South Asia.
These policies had their intended effect: a precipitous drop in the nation’s foreign-born population, from a high of 14.8 percent in the 1890s to its lowest level on record—less than 5 percent—in 1970. These pre-1890/post-1920s levels are presumably the “historical norms” to which Trump was referring on the campaign trail. In short, he was pledging to halt the demographic trajectory that the country has been on since the 1970s. In 2013, 13 percent of the US population was foreign-born. Current projections suggest that by 2065, nearly one in five people in the United States will have been born outside the country.