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When Immigration and Affirmative Action Collide

Mass immigration and widespread affirmative action are deeply in tension, and ultimately set to destroy one another.

by Jason Willick

(The American Interest) – In the past week, the Trump administration threw its weight behind two frontal assaults on flagship liberal social policies. First, as the New York Times reported on Tuesday, Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department will scrutinize affirmative action in higher education with the aim of gutting policies that it sees as discriminating against white or Asian applicants. Second, Trump gave a press conference endorsing a Senate bill, co-sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, that would significantly reduce legal immigration into the United States.

The media has mostly treated these two stories as distinct and unrelated, except insofar as they both represent the Trump Administration’s consistently right-wing approach to racial issues. In reality, the relationship goes much deeper than that. Mass immigration, and America’s proliferating racial and ethnic categories generally, represent the most vexing issue for proponents of race-based affirmative action, which was of course invented in a far less diverse country and aimed specifically at remedying the country’s enslavement and oppression of native blacks, but now arguably discriminates against a different minority group. Meanwhile, affirmative action for ethnic minorities likely heightens white resistance to mass immigration due to the perception that newcomers won’t only compete with natives for finite resources but will get a head start in that competition. If affirmative action goes down, it will be in no small part due to the influence of mass immigration; if immigration levels are slashed, the pervasiveness of affirmative action will probably have played a role.

In his 2003 book Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America, the late USC historian Hugh Davis Graham traced the complicated and overlapping history of these two hot-button social policies in the wake of the 1960s rights revolutions that birthed them. Initially, immigration reform and affirmative action seemed philosophically consistent with one another: Equality under the law meant that the U.S. shouldn’t choose which immigrants to admit based on their ethnicity; it also meant blacks who only just forced Jim Crow’s boot off their necks deserved help getting back on their feet.

The new immigration and affirmative action policies contributed to a small-scale political realignment.

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