A day after the Trump administration announced plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), it’s clear that the response from Republicans is all over the map.
Moderate Republicans – along with conservatives from swing states who recognize their electoral peril – have expressed frustration and called on Congress to produce a legislative solution for the 800,000 Dreamers.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who seemingly has awaited this day for his career, managed some token sympathies for Dreamers in his remarks. But he made it apparent that he has little desire to find a way for them to remain in the U.S.
The president, who reportedly did not understand the program before deciding to eliminate it, first punted to Congress and then tweeted that he might revisit his decision if the legislative branch does not act.
And then there was Steve King (pictured, with his Confederate flag). In an interview with Breitbart, the Iowa congressman repeated a suggestion he has offered several times before: that Dreamers be drafted into the Peace Corps and sent to their birth countries as carriers of American civilization.
On the one hand, it’s tempting to just ignore King. He has built his political brand on outrageously offensive statements and clearly loves the attention they provoke.
But King’s justification for his position warrants some critical attention. The basis for this proposal, he noted, was his belief that former DACA recipients would go “back to their home territories” with knowledge of how the “first world works.” He continued: “they would have seen the transportation system we have, the educational system, the research and development systems that we have, how a civilized people interact with each other. All of that would go with them back to their home countries, and wouldn’t that be the best economic and cultural development, civilizational development that, say, Mexico could ever experience.”*
Even more directly than usual, Steve King has managed to channel the mindset of racist white southerners of the late nineteenth century.
For some in the South, the end of Reconstruction and return of former Confederates to political power was not enough. They wanted to entirely rid the southern states of free African Americans. And their justification for doing so, much like Steve King’s, was that these emigrants would bring the beacon of American “civilization” to the rest of the world.
One of the most prominent spokesmen for this position was Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan, a former slaveholder and Confederate officer who represented his state in the Senate from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until his death in 1907. Morgan believed racial equality to be entirely impossible. He also feared that the presence of free African Americans would have the effect of “degrading our white working classes.” Therefore he called for their “unconstrained migration” to various places, usually Africa, though at other times he proposed Hawaii and the Philippines.
But Morgan cast this policy of encouraged migration as one that would have positive benefits for all involved. “The most ignorant negro in the United States is better instructed in all forms of industrial work and economy than the best trained negros in Africa.” By taking such knowledge to Africa, such migrants would benefit themselves economically. Moreover, Morgan insisted, anyone who migrated “would ultimately lift his kinsmen to better condition.”**
Fortunately, most of Morgan’s contemporaries saw his supposed beneficence for what it was. And, I suspect, most contemporary Americans find Steve King equally transparent.
Still, though, this common rhetoric, separated by over a century, is worth considering. For one thing, it provides a critical reminder that Americans’ commonplace belief in the nation’s superiority can easily be twisted to nefarious ends. As King would have it, and Morgan before him, forcibly removing people from their home country need not be an inhumane punishment. Rather, it can be America’s gift to the world, as we send out beacons of “civilization” to other countries that are far from our “first world” status. Such lies might help people sleep at night, but they’re still lies.
There’s also an even more straightforward conclusion to be drawn from these shared ideas: as if we needed any more reminders, U.S. politics of 2017 look and sound a lot like the U.S. politics of one of our worst periods.
* The quoted sections come at around 6:54 in the Soundcloud audio file.
** The quotes come from letters that Morgan sent to the British reformer E.D. Morel, which are in Morel’s papers at the London School of Economics archive. Morgan’s schemes are also discussed in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.