Trump and the History of Xenophobia in America

Dr. Dan-el Padilla Peralta is a former undocumented immigrant and current postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. His new memoir Undocumented recounts the events that allowed a young Dominican kid living past his visa in New York City to eventually graduate from Princeton as salutatorian.

In this video interview, Dr. Padilla argues that Donald Trump's acolytes need to take a good hard look into their own ancestral mirror before passing judgment on American immigrants. There's a long history of xenophobia in this country, he explains, and many of the people dishing it out today are the descendants of folks targeted by it in prior generations.

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TRANSCRIPT

Dan-el Padilla Peralta: It's common in public circles and in public discussions, notably those fueled by figures such as Donald Trump, to mischaracterize immigrants and say things like well they should have, especially the undocumented, they should have waited their turn in line or a language to that effect. But one of the ordeals immigrants, undocumented and documented face is that there is no one line. There is no one set path. There are multiplicities of the paths; each of them is complicated, in some cases dismally complicated. And sorting that out requires all this kind of prior knowledge that many immigrants don't have and resources that many of immigrants don't have. Those who are in support of Donald Trump or have lent their support to Donald Trump for now, I would say that the very first thing they need to do is to speak to some undocumented immigrants, to really have a conversation with them. I'd be happy to talk to more of them. And the reason why they should consider having this conversation is because it is always good to get the other side, even if one thinks that Trump happens to be completely right, it would be good of you to have a slightly different or markedly different perspective on things. And after you get that perspective you can see where you side.

But there are other reasons why it's important to push back against Trump and it's important for those who have been supporting him to rethink their commitment to Trump's immigration statements in particular. One has to do with the long, long history of xenophobia in the United States, a xenophobia that has touched many of the ancestors of those people who currently support Trump. It is easy when one settles into life in the United States and one has children and grandchildren who are pursuing the American dream to efface or begin blurring out the traumas of the immigration experience. Because everyone wants to be an American and that means well you sort of forget what your grandparents or great grandparents went through when they were immigrants. But I would encourage them to do some archival research in their own families; to begin asking around; to ask their grandparents, or, if they happen to be around, their great grandparents or great aunts and uncles to discuss what they experienced when they first arrived in this country. And they'll begin realizing that things were pretty grim in part because of nativist and xenophobic sentiment — especially those who happened to be descended from Irish immigrants or Italian immigrants might have some really bracing stories that they can share. And it's in this way by thinking both to our collected past as a nation and thinking about our past as an immigrant nation that we can begin to push back against some of Trump's more noxious statements.