The United States has a long history of excluding foreigners on the basis of race and religion, and Americans always have been profoundly ambivalent about immigration. At times they have been comfortable with diversity and confident in their ability to assimilate newcomers, while at other times they have worried about national unity and frightened of foreigners almost to the point of paranoia.
U.S. history is replete with episodes of nativist and racial politics. Today’s nativist outbreak is similar to the anti-Catholic agitation of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s – directed largely at the Germans and the Irish – as well as the ‘yellow peril’ of the 1870s and 1880s that resulted in the passage of the first truly federal immigration policy, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The ‘Red Scare’ in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution reinforced anti-East European and anti-Semitic sentiments. It also gave impetus to the passage of the National Origins Quota Act of 1924 whereby future immigrants would be selected based on racially desirable traits.
President Donald Trump’s rhetoric is not so surprising in light of this history. During the campaign, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. He also asserted that “Mexicans are rapists, killers and drug traffickers”, that the US should build a “big beautiful wall” along the entire southern border to keep them out, and that greater efforts should be made to apprehend and remove irregular and undesirable migrants.
Trump made good on his promises in the first month of his administration, issuing executive orders relating to border security, public safety, and terrorism. One order suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, banned refugees from Syria indefinitely, and placed a 90-day stop on entry of all nationals from seven countries: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, originally including dual nationals and legal permanent residents (green card holders). The administration insisted that these actions did not target any specific religion, but its claims were unconvincing to Muslim-Americans and among the international Muslim community. As chaos at U.S. airports ensued, the federal courts issued a stay of the Executive Order pending further review of its legality and constitutionality. The administration issued a revised Order, but the courts put that on hold as well. How can we assess the purpose of these executive orders, their impact on American politics and society, and specifically their effect on U.S. foreign and national security policy?
Immigration policy provides answers to questions about markets, rights, security, and symbolism. In normal times, the debate about immigration revolves around markets – how many migrants should be admitted and with what skills? – and rights – what status should the migrants have and how quickly should they be allowed to naturalize? These questions become more complex during periods of perceived insecurity. During the Cold War, for example, ideological tests of loyalty for gaining entry to the U.S. were common, and refugees were screened in ways that gave preference to those fleeing communism. In the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, a registry was created for male nationals of 25 countries (the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System) and all countries affected except North Korea were Muslim-majority.
If insecurity is cultural as well as physical, debates about markets and rights can be quickly overwhelmed by symbolic politics that paint immigrant groups as existential threats. Shifting the immigration debate from interests (economic and security) and law (process and policy) to values and culture accentuates ideology and intensifies the symbolic dimension of politics. This is what has happened in the first weeks of the Trump administration.
Opponents of Trump insist that migrants and refugees pose little threat. The chance of being killed by a refugee in the U.S. is one in 3.6 billion; refugees on American soil have committed only three acts of terrorism since 1975. Moreover, migrants have made a net positive contribution to the U.S. economy, taking jobs that Americans do not want or cannot do and creating new businesses through higher levels of self-employment, investment, and entrepreneurial activity. Economics notwithstanding, the battleground over immigration has moved into the courts. For the Trump administration, rolling back the rights of immigrants and refugees is seen as the best way to protect the country from subversion and terrorism. But individual rights are deeply embedded in U.S. law, and judicial review constrains executive action.
President Trump seems to have ignored the fact that his executive orders, while popular among his base, have major implications for foreign and national security policy. Trump’s policy is couched in civilizational terms, pitting Christians and Jews against Muslims, and whites and blacks against Mexicans/Hispanics. In so doing, the President has created a perfect storm of domestic opposition to his policies at the national, state, and local levels. At the international level, the policies have alienated allies in the Muslim world and given succor to extremists, and the diplomatic breakdown with Mexico might make security cooperation more difficult.
It is hard to see how these policies will allow Trump to expand his domestic support; or how they align with U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. By opting to pursue policies defined almost exclusively in symbolic and ideological terms, Trump is setting up his administration for significant opposition from domestic interests that will coalesce to maintain access to much-needed foreign labor, to defend the rights of immigrants and refugees, and to protect minorities from prejudice and discrimination. Nativism is shaky ground upon which to build a political consensus. Politicians may score short-term gains by using nativist rhetoric to energize their core supporters, but they also provoke intense opposition.
While symbolic politics scapegoating migrants and refugees may win the approval of some of Trump’s supporters, banning refugees will not make the country safer. Long-term foreign policy and security interests require U.S. allies in the Muslim world in order to build the kind of intelligence relationships needed to stop terrorists before they strike. Similar international efforts offer the only practical solutions to ongoing refugee crises in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Central America. Finally, bi-national work to encourage a stable, friendly, prosperous, and democratic regime in Mexico must outweigh the short-term electoral high that comes from nativism and symbolic politics.
James F. Hollifield
Professor of International Political Economy, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, USA and member of the International Advisory Board of the nccr – on the move
This is a shortened version of an essay, which was originally published in the International Security Studies Forum Policy Roundtable 1-8 (22 April 2017): Immigration and Refugee Policy in Donald Trump’s America.
 For more on the importance of race in the making of U.S. immigration policy, see Desmond King, Making Americans: Immigration, Race and the Diverse Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) and David Scott Fitzgerald and David Cook-Martín, Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
 LII, 8 U.S. Code § 1182 – Inadmissible aliens, current through Pub. L. 114-38; INS Form M-526 (09/11/02), “Special Registration Procedures” [Text Version].
 Alex Nowrasteh, “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis”, CATO Institute Policy Analysis 798, 13 September 2016.
 On the rise of ‘rights-based politics’ in immigrant-receiving democracies, see James F. Hollifield, Philip L. Martin and Pia M. Orrenius, eds., Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014) and on the specific role of courts in the U.S. see Anna O. Law, The Immigration Battle in American Courts. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).