A historian helps explain how the president’s rhetoric reaches back to the time of racial immigration quotas.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” the president of the United States reportedly said during a meeting with lawmakers over a potential immigration deal, referring to people from Haiti and African countries. Instead, he complained, the US should be accepting people from places such as Norway.

Trump unconvincingly denied his remarks on Friday, but the White House did not rebut making the “shithole” remarks outright, instead spinning it as Trump’s characteristic toughness on immigration.

“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement to Jim Sciutto of CNN on Thursday. The White House went on to say Trump wants immigrants who can “contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.”

Vox reached out to Ana Minian, an assistant professor of history at Stanford University, and author of the forthcoming book Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration, to explain Trump’s comments. She suggested they are echoes of America’s national origins quotas for immigrants decades ago. “Part of what it means to say ‘we don’t want people from these countries,’” Minian said, “is moving back to that very racist law that existed.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Jen Kirby

What does it mean that the president is using this kind of language about immigrants?

Ana Minian

Immigration laws are one of the ways in which we make the national body. It’s one of the ways in which we decide, as a country, who we want here and who we don’t. Immigration and births are the way to build a population.

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