“The trouble is that you ask for them only for one year, and you know you will want them back again in another year,” Johnson said, addressing those who had testified that Mexican immigration would be a boon to the United States. “You fail to look to the future. You forget that the South never realized 100 years ago that the Negro would sit in the legislatures. The citizens of those states never thought it could happen, but it did.”
Garner likely agreed with Johnson on that point, having supported post-Reconstruction efforts to disenfranchise black voters in Texas. Neither man wanted to see Mexican laborers stay in Texas and become American citizens, but Texas’s commercial interest in cheap labor was too great for Garner to support measures to further restrict Mexican immigration.
A few short years later, Johnson would successfully sponsor the most significant immigration-restriction bill in American history, designed to keep out those whom nativists saw as genetic undesirables, including Asians and Africans, Jews and Italians. But diplomatic considerations and commercial interests would prevent Johnson from imposing similar restrictions on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, setting up the conflicts that have defined the U.S. immigration debate for the past century.
The two impulses—on the one side, an economic demand for cheap labor; on the other, a desire to preserve white political hegemony—appear to be opposite poles in the immigration debate. But by preserving wealthy Americans’ access to exploitable labor while preventing the laborers themselves from earning the benefits and rights that come with American citizenship, the two visions can be reconciled. Donald Trump’s recent executive order on immigration is constructed to do precisely that.
“The nativist right wants a moratorium, meaning an end to all legal immigration. They say it’s about numbers, but it’s about race,” Frank Sharry, the head of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, told me. “But Trump wants to run on culture wars and economic comeback, so he’s very solicitous of business demands. And the prospect of a ‘ban’ that ends the flow of workers to the fields, the hospitals, and the research institutions drew very strong opposition.”
Last week, Trump announced bombastically on Twitter that he would be “signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States,” citing “the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens.”
Nativists frequently present their arguments as defenses of workers, particularly low-wage workers. More than 22 million Americans have lost their jobs and 50,000 Americans have lost their life due to the coronavirus, and Trump likely saw an opportunity to divert attention from his mishandling of the outbreak to immigration, terrain on which he is far more comfortable fighting.