In his first speech to a joint session of Congress, Donald Trump announced a shift in his approach to immigration policy, switching away from what he called a system of “lower skilled immigration," and moving toward a policy based on merit. His supporters praised his newfound compassion. But the merits of a so-called “merit-based” immigration policy have always had more to do with politics than compassion.
For one thing, US Immigration policy already favors those with wealth and skills. What Trump’s saying out loud is what Democrats have long hush-hushed, namely that the US immigration system is not only chaotic and open to abuse, but also massively discretionary, which is to say, someone’s sorting “desirables” from others.
It tends to work; not to help the economy, or refugees, or human rights, of course, but to solidify a new voting base for whichever party’s in power.
In the Kennedy-Johnson era, a shift away from a merit-based program to a policy that stressed family ties won Democrats the grateful support of a generation.
Go back to the early days of the country and immigration policy was part of what American politicians used to split Irish immigrants from the anti-slavery cause. Before the middle of the 19th century, Irish immigrants and free African Americans lived together in the same poor neighborhoods and competed for the same menial jobs, linked by their experience of discrimination, colonization, and violence.
Irish independence leader Daniel O’Connell was an abolitionist when it came to slavery. “May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if to save Ireland, I forget the negro one single hour,” he once told a session of Parliament. In 1842, alongside Frederick Douglass, O’Connell addressed an abolition meeting that attracted four thousand supporters, including lots of Irish Americans in Boston.
But gradually, that picture changed. As the historian Noel Ignatiev documents, through force and the deployment of favors by influential politicians and employers, Irish Americans as a group were slowly enticed to split from their African American neighbors and the abolition cause. Many Irish jumped at the chance to become “white” in their new land.
Donald Trump seems to be hoping the same strategy of sticks and carrots might work today. And if his better-than-anticipated support among Latino voters is anything to go by, his critics ought to be careful. If the Irish can be made “white,” why not Latinos (or other “meritorious” groups of immigrants? It’s certainly one heck of an organizing opportunity for the rest of us.)