The History of Trump’s Favorite Racist Code Word

What the president really means when he constantly promotes “assimilation.”

A deportee walks out with her family at an immigration facility in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Jan. 11.
A deportee walks out with her family at an immigration facility in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Jan. 11. Jose Cabezas/Reuters

Speaking at CPAC on Friday, Donald Trump once again pushed the notion that ending family reunification—“chain migration” in the parlance of the president—will improve our immigration system. The speech, which came on the heels of news that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services had removed the phrase “a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement, cited a Manhattan attack to segue into a discussion of immigration policy.

“This guy came in through chain migration. And a part of the lottery system,” the president said. “They say 22 people came in with him. In other words, an aunt, an uncle, a grandfather, a mother, a father, whoever came in. A lot of people came in.”

Trump then argued that his preferred immigration policy of keeping Americans apart from their families was a matter of making the system “merit-based.”

“Let’s see how those people are doing, by the way,” he said. “We have got to change our way. Merit system. I want merit system.”

The Trump administration, which has a habit of responding to accusations of prejudice with offense and indignation, has staunchly rejected the notion that its immigration agenda is driven by racial animus and instead peddled it using other terms. “Ending chain migration and also ending the visa lottery will allow us to have common sense immigration rules that promote assimilation and wage growth,” Trump has claimed.

For Trump, “assimilation” is a particularly loaded code word. If his goal were truly to promote social cohesion, an immigration policy which privileges those with strong familial ties to current residents would seem an optimal tack. In speaking of assimilation as the ultimate virtue, though, the Trump administration is referring to something else entirely, harkening back to a time when citizenship was contingent upon whiteness. A series of cases from the early 1920s demonstrates what has happened when America has formalized “assimilation” as a legal concept, rather than a loose social construction—it is used to codify special privileges for whites and legitimize abuse toward people of color.

From shortly after the Civil War through much of the 20th century, law dictated that provisions of naturalization applied only to “aliens, being free white persons and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” (Black people in that period, of course, could hardly be said to have practically enjoyed the benefits of this right to citizenship.)

For Asians living in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, who fell into neither category, their status remained in limbo. Many of them, like Japanese immigrant Takuji Yamashita, a law school graduate turned entrepreneur, had studied and worked in the United States for years. Others, like Indian immigrant Bhagat Singh Thind, had served in the armed forces. Expressing in 1922 a collective sentiment shared by many Asians living in the United States at the time, the Japanese immigrant Takao Ozawa said, “In name, I am not an American, but at heart I am a true American.” Ozawa was addressing the Supreme Court, where he, Yamashita, and Thind would all arrive at the pinnacle of their respective legal battles for the right to naturalize.

For Ozawa and Yamashita, whose cases (Ozawa v. United States and Takuji Yamashita v. Hinkle) were decided in tandem, an important question in this legal battle became that of “assimilation.” Ozawa and the Washington state attorney general filed dueling briefs titled, respectively, “The Japanese are Assimilable” and “The Japanese are Not Assimilable.” In the latter, the respondent argued that what made Japanese, like “the Negro, …the Indian, and the Chinaman,” unassimilable were their immutable “marked physical characteristics.” The brief continued:

If they were given an opportunity the Japanese are quite as capable as the Italians, the Armenians, or the Slavs of acquiring our culture and sharing our national ideals. The trouble is not with the Japanese mind but with the Japanese skin…The fact that the Japanese bears in his features a distinctive racial hall mark, that he wears, so to speak, a racial uniform, classifies him.

The brief goes on:

It is no reflection upon the Japanese to say that they will never be assimilated until socially recognized…and that if social recognition be required as a condition precedent, they will probably never be assimilated.

In their own brief arguing for assimilability, the petitioners outlined an extensive list of reasons why Japanese people ought to qualify as “white,” ranging from the adaptability of Japanese culture to the fairness of Japanese skin. For his part, Thind separately claimed that as a Punjabi of “Aryan blood,” he was not only Caucasian, but archetypically so. He stressed that India’s caste system closely mirrored America’s own rigid racial hierarchy, and his Aryan ancestors would never have mixed with others of “alien blood.”

All three lost their cases. Thind and Yamashita, who had previously been granted certificates of naturalization, had theirs revoked, and Ozawa’s petition for citizenship was denied. In case after case, the government and court recognized that each individual qualified for naturalization on his own merits, and that but for his race, and the “distinctive racial hallmarks” that accompanied it, he would have been entitled to citizenship.

Thind’s case is especially elucidating in that it illustrates how racist immigration restrictions can be used to effectively diminish the rights and question the very Americanness of current citizens. Thind had entered the United States lawfully, prior to the Exclusion Act of 1917, which subsequently restricted immigration from his country of origin. Still, the Supreme Court’s opinion in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind read, “It is not without significance … that Congress … has now excluded from admission into this country all natives of Asia … including the whole of India … since it is not likely that Congress would be willing to accept as citizens a class of persons whom it rejects as immigrants.”

The briefs filed and opinions delivered in these cases are fantastically racist. But at least, in its forthrightness, the American legal system recognized who was doing the rejecting, that the supposed inability of this nation to assimilate nonwhite immigrants was a direct result of American racism.

This cycle is playing out again in the present day, fueled by those promoting racist immigration policies anew. The only thing missing is this straightforward acknowledgment of actual motives. Immigrants of color are still barred from accessing the privileges that accompany whiteness. But when this administration emphasizes “assimilation” in promoting its racist agenda, it is merely employing politically correct language to privilege whiteness further—to pretend the exile of nonwhite immigrant communities is a self-imposed segregation and to use that exile as an excuse to fear, loathe, and punish entire races.

Trump’s true definition of “assimilation” was made clear last month when the president reportedly referred to immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and nations in Africa as coming from “shithole countries,” and said he wanted more immigrants from places like “Norway.” The official White House response to Trump’s “shithole” comments was perhaps even more revealing than the candid private remarks, however.

“Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said in defending the reported comments.

By treating capacity for assimilation as a criterion in merit-based immigration—by treating it as self-evident that Norwegians are better equipped for assimilation than Haitians—the White House turns whiteness into merit without having to explicitly say so. And as Ozawa, Yamashita, and Thind illustrate, when becoming a citizen is tantamount to demonstrating whiteness, the endeavor is a futile one. Reading their pledges of fealty to America—not just as an institution, but as a set of ideals— one wonders what grand contributions they might have made to it if only they’d been given the chance. If America chooses to reject its identity as a nation of immigrants, it won’t be because those immigrants failed to live up to their promises, but because a nation once again failed to know its own.