Behind President Trump’s efforts to step up deportations and block travel from seven mostly Muslim countries lies a goal that reaches far beyond any immediate terrorism threat: a desire to reshape American demographics for the long term and keep out people who Trump and senior aides believe will not assimilate.
In pursuit of that goal, Trump in his first weeks in office has launched the most dramatic effort in decades to reduce the country’s foreign-born population and set in motion what could become a generational shift in the ethnic makeup of the U.S.
Trump and top aides have become increasingly public about their underlying pursuit, pointing to Europe as an example of what they believe is a dangerous path that Western nations have taken. Trump believes European governments have foolishly allowed Muslims with extreme views to settle in their countries, sowing seeds for unrest and recruitment by terrorist groups.
Trump is also expected to talk about the need for stringent security during his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. And he is likely to issue a new travel ban this week, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday.
Critics of Trump’s travel ban, including several federal judges who have blocked it, have pointed to a lack of evidence that immigrants from the seven countries have engaged in terrorist acts in the U.S. Trump’s aides see a lack of trouble so far in the U.S. as having little relevance.
Two days after Trump imposed the ban, a senior administration official told reporters at the White House that the order was part of a larger strategy to develop an immigration system that selects immigrants the White House believes will make “positive contributions” to the country.
President Obama and his aides also sometimes contrasted the relative lack of terrorism in the U.S. experience with the higher level of violence in Europe. But they attributed the difference to America having done a better job than European countries of assimilating foreign-born residents.
Trump and his aides do not accept that. In their eyes, the U.S. has been spared mostly because its Muslim population remains much smaller than that of France, Germany or other European nations. Muslims make up about 7.5% of the French population, but only about 1% in the U.S., according to estimates by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
“Foreign terrorists will not be able to strike America if they cannot get into our country,” Trump said Friday. “Take a look at what’s happening to our world, folks. And we have to be smart. We have to be smart. We can’t let it happen to us,” he said.
But U.S. demographics have been changing rapidly — and undesirably in the eyes of top Trump aides, including his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, and domestic policy advisor Stephen Miller.
Inside the West Wing, the two men have pushed an ominous view of refugee and immigration flows, telling other policymakers that if large numbers of Muslims are allowed to enter the U.S., parts of American cities will begin to replicate marginalized immigrant neighborhoods in France, Germany and Belgium that have been home to plotters of terrorist attacks in recent years, according to a White House aide familiar with the discussions.
They point to shifts in immigration in the U.S. over the past century to make their case.
In 1960, 84% of migrants to the U.S. came from Europe or Canada, a bubble that was largely a result of the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted the migration of Italians and Eastern European Jews and essentially banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians.
Once the U.S. immigration system was revamped in 1960s to be more open to people from around the world, Europeans declined sharply as a share of those migrating to the U.S. By 2014, the most recent year figures are available, that share had dropped to 13.6%.
Immigrants from Asia made up the largest share with 26.4%.
That’s a trend Trump criticized long before he began linking it to the risk of terrorism.
“I say to myself, why aren’t we letting people in from Europe?” he asked during a speech at CPAC four years ago. “Nobody wants to say it — but I have many friends from Europe. They want to come in. People I know. Tremendous people. Hardworking people. They can’t come in,” he said, without elaborating.
But his argument ignores other big changes in society, critics note.
“If you were going to say, ‘We don’t like that equalization we did in 1965, we need to go back,’ that is going back to a time when the United States was more overtly racist,” said Tanya Golash-Boza, a sociology professor at UC Merced who studies immigration and race.
At the same time that the European share of migration has dropped, the overall foreign-born share of the U.S. population has increased, quadrupling in the five decades since the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act took effect. In 1960, the U.S. had 9.7 million foreign-born residents. In 2014, it had 42.2 million.
That change has alarmed right-wing nationalists like Miller and Bannon, who see Trump’s administration as an opportunity to change those migration trends for decades to come.
The two men see the country’s long-term security and wage growth entwined with reducing the number of foreign-born people allowed to visit, immigrate and work in the U.S.
Nations, including the U.S., are undermined by too high a level of diversity, Bannon has argued.
“Rule of law is going to exist when you talk about our sovereignty and you talk about immigration,” Bannon said.
The deportation orders and the travel ban were both designed to “protect the hardworking people” of the U.S. from income suppression, crime and terrorism, Miller said on Fox News last week.
“Uncontrolled immigration over many years has undermined wages, hurting prospects for people from all backgrounds and all walks of life and has made us less safe,” Miller said. “Proper controls will raise wages, improve employment, help migrant workers enter the middle class who are already living here and keep us safe from the threat of terror.”
While the travel ban languishes in court, Trump’s aides are drafting a new order that will likely apply to the issuance of future visas from the listed countries and refugee admissions and allow people already approved to enter the country.
The new order is also expected to direct the departments of State and Homeland Security to recommend restrictions on travelers from countries that don’t provide adequate information to the U.S. about visa applicants or have failed to combat widespread identity fraud.
The changes are designed to address the concerns of the courts while preserving the long-term limits on travel from several countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The countries on the original banned list are Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen.