Donald Trump has demonstrated a norm-breaking way with words throughout his presidency. The latest example of questionable phrasing occurred during a visit to a border-patrol station in California last Friday. Asked about immigrants who hope to enter the United States, Trump said, “Can’t take you anymore—we can’t take you. Our country is full. Our area’s full. The sector is full—can’t take you anymore. I’m sorry.” Over the weekend, he repeated the sentiment in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition: “Can’t come in—our country is full. What can you do? We can’t handle any more. Our country is full—can’t come in. I’m sorry. It’s very simple.”
But it’s not simple, either economically or demographically. Economists have been pointing out for some time that many regions of the country and sectors of the economy are currently experiencing a labor shortage. As the New York Times noted, Republican Governor Phil Scott of Vermont used his annual budget address this year to declare, “Our biggest threat is our declining labor force . . It’s the root of every problem we face.”
Demographers can tell you a great deal about the likely consequences for a country with an aging population and declining birthrates among the native-born, and it isn’t a place that will feel “full.” In fact, population growth hasn’t been this slow since the Great Depression.
Despite his frequent references to the increasing number of people seeking to enter the U.S. along the country’s southern border, Trump is in fact making a qualitative argument about immigrants, hence the frequent references to their supposedly criminal activity in his tweets—“No Open Border (Crimes & Drugs).” In doing so he joins a long and ignominious line of leaders who have tried to demonize the very thing that makes the United States the heterogeneous economic powerhouse that it has long been: immigrants.
Waves of immigration to the United States have often spawned reactionary responses—not only rhetorically, but also politically in the form of restrictive legislation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (most of whom were Catholic or Jewish) arrived in the U.S., many native-born Americans feared that the new immigrants would fail to assimilate. Eugenic theories popular at the time stoked concerns that immigrants would dilute the “germplasm” of the nation with their supposedly inferior traits. The result was passage of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which established quotas on immigrants coming from countries the political and cultural elite deemed less desirable.
Fifteen years later, when nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe on a ship called the St. Louis attempted to dock at a U.S. port, these same quotas were invoked to refuse them entry. Isolationist sentiment was running high in Congress, and President Roosevelt did not want to upset his chances for another term in office by issuing an executive order to grant the refugees visas. The ship returned to Europe, and half of her passengers perished in the Holocaust (most of the ones who survived were given refuge in Britain; some of those given refuge in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France also survived).
Today the crisis at our southern border has prompted epic amounts of political posturing on both sides of the aisle, and as Noah Rothman argued in our pages, none of it has led to useful legislative action by Congress to stem the humanitarian crisis. After Trump’s Red Wedding-like bloodletting at the Department of Homeland Security this week, and his susceptibility to the anti-immigration siren songs of aide Stephen Miller, leadership on the issue seems even less likely to emerge from the White House. “The staffing decisions aren’t being made by ‘an individual who has an extensive understanding of the threats facing the country’,” former DHS acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis John D. Cohen told Quartz. The White House is “primarily on implementing a political agenda.”
The political agenda of the Democrats isn’t much better. Contra Nancy Pelosi and Beto O’Rourke, borders aren’t immoral, and sometimes countries need to build walls. America has long been a beacon of hope for those seeking a better life for themselves and their families, and the people who come here looking for that deserve a fair process on the path to citizenship. A White House that makes ridiculous claims that our country is “full” and demonizes people who want to become Americans might do well in the short-term with its isolationist supporters, but it won’t fare well in the judgment of history.