For a nation of immigrants, the challenge is where to draw the line. A decade ago, Gallup asked adults the world over whether they would like to live somewhere else, if they could. They got a yes from 700 million people. Asked where they’d like to go, the destination of choice–named by 165 million people–was the U.S.
America can’t take them all in, of course. But the idea of the nation as both a beacon and a refuge has softened the landing for millions of people who arrived without papers and over time became Americans.
It’s an idea the Trump Administration is snatching back. The announcement on Jan. 8 ordering nearly 200,000 Salvadorans to return to Central America is only the latest inversion of an Executive generosity that extends back at least six Presidents. About 46,000 Haitians were ordered out in November, when 2,500 Nicaraguans were also put on notice. Tens of thousands of Hondurans living in the U.S. await the next Department of Homeland Security take-back of what’s called Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
TPS thus takes its place on protest signs alongside DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in undoing the founding assumption of national identity since at least Plymouth Rock: that becoming an American was basically a matter of showing up and acting like one.
Border enforcement is one cornerstone of nationhood (as most of the 165 million would acknowledge). But historically, illegal aliens grew less alien the longer they were in the country, and more legal. TPS was granted to Salvadorans already in the States in 2001 on the notional premise that they could hardly be expected to return to a country just hit by an earthquake. Today the State Department warns U.S. citizens against traveling to El Salvador, and it’s far more perilous for Salvadorans, given the extraordinary violence of urban gangs that operate with impunity there. Honduras is similarly afflicted. Together with Guatemala, the nations have some of the world’s highest murder rates.
Meanwhile, during the 16 years they have been legal, these people appear to have made a life for themselves. According to the Journal of Migration and Human Society, the Salvadorans in question work at higher rates (88%) than their U.S.-born counterparts (63%) and are raising 193,000 children, all U.S. citizens. They have been in the U.S., on average, 21 years, the span of a first-generation narrative we know both from stories of our own families and from the national story we tell ourselves. That’s the progression Trump has reversed.
“They’re being turned into undocumented people,” says Don Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, a New York think tank. “It’s not legalization. It’s illegalization.”
It’s also a sea change in U.S. policy, if not the national identity itself. Immigration has always been partly about America’s refreshing itself, and hybrid vigor, and filling jobs U.S. citizens won’t do. Prominent among groups opposing the TPS rollback is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But the transactional tended to be married to the aspirational, even by Republicans. In a 1980 presidential primary debate, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush took turns framing the issue around compassion. “I’d like to see something done about the illegal alien problem that would be so sensitive and so understanding about labor needs and human needs,” Bush said. In office 10 years later, he signed legislation creating TPS.
Trump’s agenda, by contrast, plays to the nativists in his base. He proposes accepting fewer refugees from war zones, doing away with visa lotteries that reward random supplicants and outlawing family-reunification visas, recasting them as “chain migration.” At a televised Jan. 9 meeting with lawmakers, Trump proposed that all those changes come together in bills that would also address the perhaps 800,000 U.S. residents who had been brought into the country as young children and grew up knowing no other home.
Later in the day, a U.S. District judge in San Francisco ordered that DACA continue while courts sort through the challenges to Trump’s decision to end it, even as he expressed his strong regard for the people wondering what country is theirs.
“It should be a bill of love, truly,” Trump said.
This appears in the January 22, 2018 issue of TIME.