On the surface, the standoff that has shut down large parts of the federal government is about funding President Donald Trump’s campaign promise of a Southern border wall.

But it’s really a confrontation between two sharply different concepts of the United States: one more purist, one more melting pot.

Trump’s concept exemplifies his signature slogan of “Make America Great Again,” his belief that modern-day America is “a disaster” or, as he said in his inaugural speech, a “carnage.” He wants to restore the country of an earlier day by keeping out, expelling or limiting those he blames for changing it.

It’s not only erecting a concrete or steel wall to curb predominantly brown-skinned immigrants from the South. He would also restrict legal immigration that, in recent years, has come more heavily from Asia, as he yearns for more immigrants from white European countries like Norway. His targets go beyond immigration to ending rules and guidelines aimed at helping minorities overcome prior discrimination.

Trump’s opponents hold a directly contrary belief that the “good old days” weren’t so good for many Americans, especially non-whites and the burgeoning minority racial and religious groups. People with this point of view exemplify “an open door” and look ahead.

They take their philosophical lead from President Ronald Reagan’s mantra that “America’s best days lie ahead,” and their practical ones from President Barack Obama’s actions protecting and enhancing immigrant and minority groups. They view Trump’s wall as both a physical barrier and an unacceptable moral one; the nation’s top Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, called it “an immorality,” adding, “It’s not who we are as a nation.”

Trump set the tone for this standoff when, announcing his candidacy in June 2015, he vowed to “build a great, great wall on our southern border” to stop terrorists, rapists and drugs from Mexico and elsewhere. “And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”

The idea of Mexico paying has long since evaporated — though Trump claims that, somehow, Americans’ increased income under the revised trade agreement with Canada and Mexico means Mexico would at least indirectly fund the wall.

And in Tuesday night’s Oval Office speech, Trump sought to redefine the wall as less a barrier than the solution to “a humanitarian crisis” mainly affecting African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, women and children, devised not by him but by “law enforcement professionals.”

But the wall remains his simplistic, symbolic solution to the persistent problem of illegal immigration: the 11 million undocumented immigrants within American borders, the thousands seeking asylum here, and the additional thousands given temporary sanctuary by various Obama-era actions — though more illegal immigrants overstay valid visas than enter from the South.

He has rejected every significant compromise to resolve both underlying and immediate immigration problems in favor of restrictive policies that only made things worse.

From banning entry from certain Muslim countries to seeking curbs on legal immigration, Trump’s proposals all would cut the number of immigrants, legal and illegal; in recent years, legal immigration from India and China has surpassed that from Mexico.

Besides its controversial “zero tolerance” border policies separating minor children from refugees and forcing fleeing Central Americans to remain in Mexico, the administration has proposed:

Ending DACA. The administration halted Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protecting 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought here as children by their parents, mostly from Mexico. Federal judges blocked it; Trump now talks of deferring action until the Supreme Court acts.

Reducing refugee resettlement programs. Despite millions of refugees in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the administration first halted the 1980 Refugee Resettlement program, then sharply reduced the number being admitted.

Ending Temporary Protected Status. The administration sought to end the program protecting 300,000 U.S. residents who fled El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan due to environmental disasters, armed conflict or other dangers. Blocking the order, a federal judge suggested it reflected “animus against nonwhite, non-European immigrants in violation of the Equal Protection Clause guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Limiting Green Cards and Citizenship. The administration proposed barring citizenship or permanent residency (green cards) for immigrants receiving governmental benefits like Medicaid, food stamps or public housing. Most of the 12.6 million green card holders come from Mexico, China, India, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic.

In a domestic counterpart to its immigration policy the administration has sought to roll back protections for various other minorities, from black voters to transgender persons seeking to enter the military.

This should hardly be surprising, given Trump’s racist history back to his early days in New York real estate. He has shown his true feelings when complaining about the immigration of “all these people from s — — hole countries” rather than predominantly white places like Norway.

Ultimately, the current impasse will end, perhaps with Trump taking questionable legal action to force funding for the wall, while acquiescing in reopening the government. But the underlying question remains that will inevitably become part of the 2020 election: what kind of country is the United States?

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: [email protected]

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