Having followed congressional action on immigration for 22 years, one of the greatest frustrations has been the complete flip-flop of the Democratic Party on immigration politics.
Democrats used to champion protecting American workers from foreign competition. They wanted immigration severely reduced and the laws enforced. Sen. Harry Reid introduced legislation in 1995 to cut legal immigration by nearly two-thirds. President Bill Clinton, in his 1995 State of the Union address, said: “All Americans … are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. … That’s why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders … by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens.”
That was Clinton, not Trump.
When Clinton’s U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by civil rights icon Barbara Jordan, delivered its final report, Clinton promised to support the commission’s recommendations. The commission’s core conclusion called for a significant reduction in legal immigration. They recommended eliminating extended family sponsorship (chain migration) and the diversity lottery, and a worksite authorization system targeting employers.
Today, Democrats are fighting for a “clean” legalization for “Dreamers,” and they adamantly resist these reforms.
When the Immigration in the National Interest Act was introduced in 1995 to enact the Jordan Commission reforms, with bipartisan support and Clinton’s endorsement, it was expected to pass. Had it passed, it’s unlikely we would be mired in divisive debates today, with 11 million more illegal immigrants, and Trump in the White House.
Why didn’t it pass? Clinton and others torpedoed the commission’s reforms.
Barbara Jordan died in January 1996. The Boston Globe reported in January 1997 (“Clinton policy shift followed Asian-American fundraiser”) that Clinton received a memo in February 1996 from John Huang, the Democratic Party’s fundraiser in the Asian community, reporting that his Asian contributors’ “top priority” was to kill legislation ending chain migration. The Democratic National Committee subsequently received $1.1 million from Asian donors at fundraising dinner that month.
One month later, Clinton reversed himself, telling Congress to continue to allow chain migration. Huang later pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge for violating campaign finance laws. Bottom line: Clinton was bought, and it barely registered with the press.
At the same time, a coalition of high-tech business leaders formed an alliance with other pro-immigration groups — business lobbies, immigrant rights activists, immigration lawyers, religious groups — intent on killing the Jordan bill entirely. The high-tech industry hired Grover Norquist, a leading conservative lobbyist, to persuade Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition to attack the bill as “anti-family.”
In the end, most of the Jordan Commission reforms were defeated. A staggering array of disparate pro-immigration lobbies coalesced in the Democratic Party and have dominated the political narrative.
The academic authors of “ The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform,” summarizing the lessons from the Jordan bill defeat, observed that the pro-immigration forces discovered they had a powerful advantage by focusing on compelling anecdotes rather than abstract facts. Immigration became, the authors said, “a matter of human rights, of morality.” They had a moral cause.
Immigration politics is a deep game, involving multiple lobbies and foreign governments, not just China. Foreign countries receive more than $138 billion annually in remittances from immigrants in the U.S., and they routinely lobby Washington. Many players have a stake in defeating any legislation that reduces immigration or tightens enforcement, not just the Democrats.
A recent Harvard/Harris poll shows that a majority of voters from all ethnic and political groups overwhelmingly want an immigration deal that would end chain migration, eliminate the diversity lottery and legalize “Dreamers.” Eighty-one percent want reduced legal immigration, while 63 percent want it cut in half or more.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrants and their children have added 86 million new people. Americans want a breather, to assimilate the immigrants already here, get the wages up and move more folks into the middle class.
Ironically, ending chain migration, and the visa lottery, which is fiercely fought by Democrats today, was included in a 2013 immigration bill supported by Sens. Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Bernie Sanders, Susan Collins and Angus King. Apparently, these reforms weren’t controversial then.
The American people have compassion for “Dreamers,” but they also want common-sense reform that prioritizes American workers through sensible reductions and decisive enforcement against employers.
Jonette Christian of Holden is a founder of Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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