One point for being well-educated. Two points for being young. Three points for being healthy. Ten points for being rich. The climate crisis is the greatest threat to human civilization, but the greatest threat to the United States may be something a lot more subtle—it’s the plan put forward by Donald Trump and Stephen Miller to move the nation to merit-based immigration. Under such a system, immigrants are allowed into the United States based primarily on their perceived ability to support themselves. Those who are seen as least likely to be a drain on government services and most likely to generate a net gain for the nation’s economic balance go to the head of the line. Those who come packaged with an advanced degree and a stock portfolio get an express lane.
It’s a system that’s perfectly reasonable and absolutely prudent … if the net worth of a human being is determined solely by her bank account. It’s also a system that is intrinsically racist and absolutely gutless.
The Constitution may define American ideals, but it’s not the only such touchstone to who we are. A system that is genuinely blind to national origin and economic state—one that says that the itinerant cook from Guatemala should not stand behind the surgeon from Gloucester when it comes to being allowed into the nation—may seem imprudent and even risky. Because it is. It’s also absolutely vital.
The reason that America is America … the reason that it, even now, when multiple studies show the United States to have among the world’s most locked down social and economic structure, continues to be seen as that “land of opportunity,” is not because this nation has careful gatekeepers ushering in only those who have already proven themselves elsewhere. It’s because the gates have been open to those who can only list “yearning” as their highest quality. The reason that the United States hosts the core companies of the Internet age, and the reason it continues to rake in an outsized number of Nobel Prizes, isn’t because there were merit-based guardians at the gate, but because there were not.
Every rags-to-riches story first requires rags.
For Donald Trump and others like him, being wealthy is not merely merit, but measure. They can’t conceive that a war-shocked refugee huddled in some Syrian camp has worth equal to the millionaire son of a millionaire father who was the son of a millionaire mother. In Trump’s mind, the American story is simply “I was born with it. I win.” He can only perceive the impoverished immigrant not just as an other, but as a threat.
How can Ilhan Omar have anything to contribute to the running of America when she’s not even rich? And her parents are not rich? And they’re not … white. Omar, and others like her, are a threat to the status quo, and just as terrifying to men like Trump, as the concept of America was to the monarchs of Europe.
There are countries that wish to be nothing more than incremental improvements on what they have, countries which have baked heritage and history into their founding documents and jealously guard against change. If people want a country that is always comfortable, whose customs and character are as firmly nailed in place as its geography then … what’s the way the right says it? Let them go elsewhere.
There are plenty of countries—nice people, good climate—following exactly the kind of system that Trump and Miller prescribe. Countries that have nailed down language, and religion, and racial heritage as part of their national character. Countries that allow in only those who have already demonstrated they can be a success. Countries who accept only people who are safe, who can pay their way, who will never be a burden.
None of those countries is the United States. None of them ever will be.
The United States is a place, a people, and a nation, but it’s principally an idea; and it must be an idea which moves forward regardless of the national origin, or religion, or language of those who express it. That notion that anyone can join and anyone can succeed, because everyone has value and everyone brings possibilities.
It’s a really big squad.
The United States does not live up to that idea. It’s never come even close. But then … no country lives up to its founding principles. The ones that fail are simply the ones that stop trying. Which is what a merit-based immigration system would be: an admission of failure. An admission that we should box up that big green lady and ship her home, because every other country was right, and America was wrong.
Let’s see … take away one point for tired. Minus two for huddled. And longing? You get no points for that.
Diversity isn’t just a concept, it’s the fuel the nation burns. It’s the only genuine strategic advantage that America holds. Those nations that practice merit-based immigration policy are not bad countries. In fact, many are perfectly nice countries. That’s especially true of those who temper their normal system with generous acceptance of refugees. But if we join them, it will only be by surrendering.