Trump, King, and the American Dream
Two score and fifteen years ago, the great American we celebrate today proclaimed a hope for a new birth of freedom in this nation. He had a dream that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” These words moved the heart of a nation and reawakened a love for our founding principle that men are created equal by God. America has been saved from the scourge of racial segregation. But are we owning up to the fullness of Martin Luther King’s dream? Does this nation live up to its own ideals and judge people by their character, not how or where they are born?
When Donald Trump called for reducing immigration from “s***hole countries,” like Haiti and African nations, the reaction from some pundits indicated it was the most important day of his presidency. But for ordinary Americans, it was Thursday. It almost goes without saying that these remarks are un-presidential. But Trump saying something un-presidential is far from novel. Even so, his comments are a reminder that a leader can still go far in our politics while publicly abetting racism.
Are Haiti and some African countries doing so poorly that our crass and unfiltered President could denigrate them as he did? Sure. In the past 10 years, Haiti has been devastated by an earthquake that left 1/7th of its people homeless and a hurricane that inflicted damage equal to a quarter of its GDP (which is low enough that the average Haitian’s income is less than $2 a day, and that’s projected to shrink in coming years). The Democratic Republic of the Congo ended a bloody civil war and had its first free elections just 12 years ago, only for the president they elected to cancel elections and remain in power. Zimbabwe just suffered what its generals insist to little avail “is not a coup.” Most Americans would probably prefer not to live under the conditions of the average citizens of these countries.
But are Africans and Haitians untouchables who should be kept at an ocean’s distance from the land of milk and honey? To approach this question, let’s start from our first principles. All Americans are bound by the terms of the social contract that establishes our government (see Declaration of Independence and US Constitution). When a man becomes a citizen, he enters into that social contract. As parties to the agreement, the American people have the right to establish terms for membership, and who gets to join. So how do we determine the rules for joining? James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, described the policy for admission of new members in the first years of the republic:
“At the end of two years from the time, at which a foreigner ‘of good character’… sets his foot in this land of generosity as well as freedom, he is entitled to become, if he chooses, a citizen of our national government. At the end of seven years… he the citizen may become legislator; for he is eligible as a representative in the congress of the United States.”
Such an open immigration policy was deemed beneficial for our country, letting those immigrants with the determination needed to uproot themselves from their familiar native land and strike out to make a new path for themselves, become members of our society. The founders understood that these immigrants are a boon to the country where they immigrate, contributing to American society. America has a unique strength in assimilating the new arrivals. After all, America was founded not on a foundation of blood and soil ties, but on one of principles. Any who accept our principles can become American, and people from all corners of the world have proven that they can accept them.
But should we be picky about where these immigrants can come from? Is Trump right to disparage immigrants from Africa or Haiti? A 2017 study by the Cato Institute broke down incarceration rates for immigrants and US natives, and found that legal immigrants from all regions of the world, including Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, are less likely to be incarcerated for than US-born natives. Studies of the economic effects differ in their findings, but if there are harms, they stem from low-skilled immigration. Haitians and Africans may have lower education levels than Norwegians, so there is a sliver of an argument that Trump could have been making with his remarks.
However, Trump’s words do not exist in a vacuum. These comments come from a man who opened his presidential campaign by declaring that, broadly speaking, Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and rapists (but some, presumably, are good people). This is a man who struggled deeply with rejecting former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. He has a long history of racist remarks. For such a man to make such remarks, an astute mind for clarifying a mixed bag of economic research seems less likely than a continuation of a long train of slights and degradations.
Like every President since Reagan, Trump issued a proclamation for this day, naming Martin Luther King a “great American hero.” In Donald Trump’s own words, Martin Luther King reminded us of the truth that “no matter what the color of our skin, or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God.” The president should take his own words to heart. Regardless of their place of birth, people from “s***hole countries” are not “s***hole” people, and should be admitted under the same standards as people from any other countries.