The Statue of Liberty’s inspirational promise, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” was never really an open invitation to all. A review of American immigration policy reveals a nation seeking to maintain a particular racial and ethnic balance — that is, a nation composed of white, western Europeans. At various times, America’s immigration policies have been constructed to block or limit the entry of Asians, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics and certainly Africans and other dark-skinned immigrants.
The latest installment in this long, sad story: The Trump administration’s announcement that it would end “temporary protected status” for more than 59,000 Haitians who have been able to live and work in the United States since a 2010 earthquake devastated the impoverished island nation. Last month, Trump ended temporary protected status for Nicaraguan immigrants.
These Haitian citizens have lived in the United States for seven years now, many working and sending money back to support family members in Haiti. During this time, more than 30,000 children have been born to these expatriated Haitians ― children who are American citizens, who have never known a life other than the one they’ve lived here, whose parents are no longer welcome to stay.
Extending temporary protected status to Haitian refugees after the earthquake was a humanitarian gesture: The earthquake rendered millions homeless. But Haiti has yet to fully recover. Thousands of Haitians still live in tent cities with no bathrooms, electricity or running water. And Haiti was pummeled again last year when Hurricane Matthew swept over the island.
The need for humanitarian support for these Haitians, who are well assimilated into American culture, is not over. But is America still a nation with humanitarian values? And ― setting aside grace and kindness ― just from a practical standpoint, these expats play an important role for us, too. Many work low-paid service jobs that America’s economy depends on, keeping costs of goods and services down for more privileged Americans.
Their presence here provides symbiotic benefits on both shores: Here, they make a higher wage than they ever could earn in Haiti; their living conditions are better; their children benefit from an American education. By working hard and sending money to family in Haiti, they stabilize people in the poorest nation in the hemisphere ― a nation that has yet to properly benefit from the $13 billion in aid pledged worldwide to rebuild the country. Much of that relief, directed to contractors and NGOs, has yet to reach the island seven years later.
But President Trump seems not to be basing this policy decision on the facts, but rather on a thinly veiled campaign promise to reset America’s immigration policy to keep out people of color and make America white again.
The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants based on national origin to give preference to white immigrants from northern and western Europe and limit those from southern and eastern Europe. As a Congressional report on the policy openly stated, the quota system was “an effort to preserve, as nearly as possible, the racial status quo in the United States. It is hoped to guarantee as best we can at this late date racial homogeneity.”
This policy was “reformed” in 1965 to impose an equal 20,000 immigrant limit to all countries. But that egalitarian veneer still favored white-skinned immigrants, since western Europe is made up of many small nations and Africa, at the time, was composed of colonies rather than countries, and didn’t get quotas.
President Trump rode to victory by playing on the worst fears and biases of some Americans. His heartless Haitian policy lays bare the ugly, racially divisive underpinnings of his presidency. It represents the latest dog whistle to his increasingly empowered, white supremacist base.
American greatness is premised on high ideals and will never be achieved by division, racism and hate.
Ben Crump is a nationally known civil rights attorney and advocate, and is the founder and principal of Ben Crump Law, www.bencrump.com.