In his last presidential address in 1989, Ronald Reagan called this country's ability to attract immigrants "vital" and "one of the most important sources of America's greatness." He made no distinction between "legal" and "illegal"—immigrants, simply and generally, keep the U.S. "a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas."
This isn't something that you'll hear former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis say on the campaign trail. "We talk a lot about illegal immigration," said DeSantis at an event last week. "But no one really talks about the legal immigration system and there's some Republicans that say, 'As long as it's legal, it doesn't matter.' I don't subscribe to that."
Nor are Trump's second-term crackdown ambitions limited solely to undocumented immigrants, The New York Times reported on Saturday. Instead of targeting legal status, many of Trump's policies would target ideologies he dislikes. "The visas of foreign students who participated in anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian protests would be canceled," per the Times. "U.S. consular officials abroad will be directed to expand ideological screening of visa applicants to block people the Trump administration considers to have undesirable attitudes."
In other words, DeSantis and Trump aren't content to think about legal immigration versus illegal immigration. Instead, they're thinking about good legal immigration versus bad legal immigration.
Trump nodded to this attitude in a campaign speech last month in Iowa, saying that his administration would implement "strong ideological screening of all immigrants" to keep out "dangerous lunatics, haters, bigots, and maniacs." In a Fox News appearance this week, DeSantis allowed that ideological testing "may be difficult." But "if you have a country that has a culture that's hostile to kind of the American way of life," he continued, "I would just say don't bring in people from that country."
Trump's comments are reminiscent of the so-called extreme vetting of immigrants that he pushed as president, which included his infamous "Muslim ban" and a 2017 order that almost completely shut down travel to the U.S. from six Muslim-majority nations. The policies operated on a faulty premise; though ostensibly meant as security measures, the Cato Institute's David J. Bier noted in 2018, "No one from the travel ban countries, nor any Muslim refugee, has killed anyone in a terrorist attack in the United States in more than 40 years."
DeSantis, similarly, says he "would not want to import people" from "societies that have…toxic cultures." Setting aside the obvious issues with the president determining which societies have toxic cultures, consider a gay man from Iran or a Christian from Afghanistan. Those countries might have cultures that are "hostile" to "the American way of life," as DeSantis said. But by barring immigration from those countries, would DeSantis be hurting the regime or the people trying to flee it?
These policies illustrate a wildly limited view of America, completely neglecting the nation's track record of pluralism and acceptance of diverse views. "If you're a communist, Marxist, or fascist, you are disqualified" from immigrating here, Trump said last month. Also disqualified: people who "don't like our religion." (What is "our religion," exactly?) DeSantis says immigrants have "got to subscribe to the founding principles of this country." How do you prove such a thing?
This would move U.S. immigration policy in an unproductive—not to mention discriminatory—direction. The priority wouldn't be bringing critical workers where they're needed, allowing immigrant entrepreneurs to launch startups in the U.S., offering refuge to the world's vulnerable and displaced, or giving Americans the ability to sponsor their family members for resettlement. It would be a centrally planned, exclusive vision of America's promise, and it would neglect the ways in which Americans benefit from various forms of legal immigration.
In a speech at the National Conservatism Conference last September, DeSantis lamented that "mass immigration, whether illegal immigration or whether it's just mass immigration through the legal process," isn't "conducive to assimilating people into American society." DeSantis and Trump aren't content to accept migrants who come to the U.S. "the right way." If their plans come to fruition, there won't be a right way for the people whose cultures the candidates deem undesirable.