In February 2018, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services changed its mission statement. USCIS director, Francis Cissna, a Trump appointee, advised staff that the new version would “guide us in the years ahead.” The revisions set out an America First agenda, purging references to “a nation of immigrants” and “providing accurate and useful information to our customers” (prospective immigrants); instead, the future USCIS will be “fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland and honoring our values.”
As with all acts of revision, the new statement’s erasures are as significant as its insertions. President John F. Kennedy spoke of “a nation of immigrants” and took pride in America’s capacity to absorb newcomers into its “dream.” Although his background was one of great wealth and privilege, Kennedy knew firsthand – as the great grandchild of Irish immigrants – that White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America did not intended to surrender its social and political power to the immigrant underclass from which his own family had emerged. That power could only be wrested away if the nation embraced its immigrant past. Sixty years later, Trump wishes to overturn this view. The removal of Kennedy’s inclusive phrase is underscored by the USCIS’ insistence on ownership and control (“adjudicating”, “protecting”, “homeland”, “our values”). These are also talking points for the smirking xenophobes who currently head Trump’s Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
More recently, the Washington Post reports that Cissna has authorized USCIS to review thousands of fingerprint records from the 1990s to see whether applicants may have made misleading statements while seeking to obtain legal residency in the US. The review could empower USCIS to “denaturalize” new immigrants by stripping them of US citizenship – a move that will further heighten political tensions over immigration and produce new legal challenges from human rights and immigrant groups. But whether or not these initiatives turn out to be legal, they serve Trump’s tactical aims. They reassure his base that the president is defending a “real” America from foreign intruders and they draw a divisive and deeply un-American line between native born and naturalized citizens. (The administration also intends to introduce a controversial citizenship question into the 2020 census.)
In March 2016 a poll found that the single most accurate predictor of whether a given voter would support Trump in the GOP primaries was his/her absence of a college degree. Irrespective of their income, white Americans who lacked a competitive education were the demographic that most favoured Trump. This suggests, and subsequent events have confirmed, that Trump’s nativism expresses a much wider mistrust within the US electorate about their future in a global world. Draconian immigration measures will do little to address the immigrant challenges that Europe and the Americas will be faced with for at least another generation, but Trump’s intolerance of, and repeated condescension towards, the global south have nevertheless acted as a powerful emotional catharsis for his base.
The opposing view of America was expressed by Therese Patricia Okoumou, the woman who climbed to the base of the Statue of Liberty three days ago, to protest the Trump administration’s family separation policy. The deeply polarized responses to her nonviolent protest have thrown a spotlight on the large and growing divide between the nativist and multicultural tendencies in the US. What the current standoff between these camps suggests is that America’s long, culturally complex past – European settlers were, of course, the first illegal immigrants – may not be written out of the country’s history as easily as president Trump and his supporters would like to think.