Trying to defend President Donald Trump’s comments preferring immigrants from Norway over Haiti, El Salvador and Africa, First Baptist Church of Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress told the Washington Post that race is an acceptable reason for the government to discriminate in immigration.
According to reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Jeffress told her that the U.S. has the right “to restrict immigration according to whatever criteria it establishes, including race or other qualifications.” He claimed that there isn’t anything racist about such restrictions.* I would like to hear an explanation for that. What else besides racial prejudice would lead the U.S. to prefer whites over non-whites? I would like to hear Rev. Jeffress’ answer to that question.
Jeffress’ blatant defense of racial discrimination is reminiscent of opposition by other Southern white men to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. INA struck down immigration quotas and increased immigration from Africa, Latin America and Asia. INA was opposed by those who wanted to maintain discrimination in immigration policy. Essentially, the policy prior to 1965 favored European immigration with limits on people coming in from elsewhere in the world. Now in 2018, Trump’s preference for white Norwegians over dark skinned Africans and Jeffress’ defense of his position sound like the same rhetoric used by opponents of the INA in 1965.
One of the most vocal opponents of INA was Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC). During Senate hearings on the bill, Ervin expressed that race and country of origin should be used in immigration discrimination. Ervin said:
The people of Ethiopia have the same right to come to the United States under this bill as the people from England, the people of France, the people of Germany, the people of Holland. With all due respect to Ethiopia, I don’t know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.
He wasn’t alone in his views.
As Tom Gjelten documents in his book A Nation of Nations, Spessard Hollard (D-FL) asked during debate on the bill:
Without the profanity, Ervin and Spessard raised the same questions in 1965 as Trump and Jeffress are raising now. Why do we want these people from Africa? We should have more people from Europe.
Why, for the first time, are the emerging nations of Africa, to be placed on the same basis as are our mother countries – Britain, Germany, Scandinavian nations, France, and the other nations from which most Americans have come?
Blinded by the White
A sign of white privilege is the distortion of reality it promotes. Ervin and Spessard seemed oblivious to the fact that citizens in their states had African heritage. As Gjelten points out in his book, “In the 1960 census, Americans of African descent out-numbered Scandinavian Americans by a margin of two and a half to one, and there were more African-Americans in the United States than there were Americans whose origins lay in Italy, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland combined.”
Apparently, as Gjelten notes, Ervin and Spessard didn’t consider African nations as “mother countries.” Of course, that is absurd. One would have to look at U.S. history through the lens of white privilege to think people with African heritage have made no contributions to American life and culture.
Some of Trump’s defenders have said Trump just said what some people are thinking when he expressed his preference for Norwegians over people
from “shithole” countries. Perhaps some white people are thinking those things, but a look at the history of the Civil Rights struggle shows that some people always have. In the 1960s, those views were shown the door legislatively. Now they are front and center in the White House, with evangelical religious leaders to defend them.
As a religious advisor to the president, Jeffress claims that the United States has the right to engage in racial discrimination in immigration policy. His evangelical peers should not let that stand without condemnation. Racial discrimination was evil in 1965 and it is evil now, wherever it occurs. There is no national interest in that kind of evil.
Tomorrow we remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. King, Jr. lamented the silence of the white church during the fight for civil rights. The church should not be silent now.
*I confirmed this conversation with Washington Post reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey. Jeffress told Bailey that the United States has the right to restrict immigration according to whatever criteria it establishes. She then asked him, “Would you include race?” He said, “Whatever criteria we deem necessary.” She asked him a direct question about race which he agreed to.