In 2001, when I was the new Washington correspondent for The Arizona Republic, I attended the annual awards dinner of the National Immigration Forum. The forum is a left-right coalition that lobbies for unauthorized immigrants and expansive immigration policies. Its board has included officials of the National Council of La Raza, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, as well as the United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association and the American Nursery and Landscape Association.
After dinner, the group’s executive director, Frank Sharry, made a pitch to business allies who wanted Congress to allow them unfettered access to foreign workers. “You guys in business get all the workers you want, whenever you want them,” he proposed. “No bureaucracy.”
“Sold!” yelled John Gay, a lobbyist for the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Mr. Sharry quickly added that the deal must include advocacy for “three little, tiny pieces of paper: a green card, a union card and a voter registration card” for unauthorized immigrants.
For me, a reporter who had long covered immigration in the Southwest and Mexico, the exchange was a revelation about the politics of immigration in Washington. Business lobbyists like Mr. Gay — conservatives who seek loose labor markets so employers can keep wages down — align themselves with liberal activists like Frank Sharry to pursue policies that serve their groups.
Who, I wondered, was lobbying for the American workers competing with the new arrivals? The answer, I learned, was no one. As the former labor secretary Robert Reich once put it, “There’s no National Association of Working Poor.”
This mismatch of political influence, combined with the social and fiscal consequences of a wave of low-skilled immigrants, led me to believe that immigration should be restricted so that its power to invigorate our country is not eclipsed by its potential to harm workers. I think immigration, like capitalism itself, should be regulated in the national interest, not shaped to serve the free-market libertarianism of the right or the post-national humanitarianism of the left.
That’s why I call myself a liberal restrictionist.I have long considered myself a moderate liberal, in part because Democrats have always been the allies of working people. For many decades, liberals were outspoken in their alarm about illegal immigration.
In 1970, Senator Walter Mondale warned that “we have a massive poverty population coming into the country” from Mexico. In 1983 a New York Times editorial argued that while the country needed immigrants, “what it does not need is such an uncontrollable flood of illegal migrants that it tries public patience.” In 1994, Barbara Jordan, the civil rights icon chosen by President Bill Clinton to direct the Federal Commission on Immigration Reform, told Congress, “As a nation of immigrants committed to the rule of law, this country must set limits on who can enter.” In 2003, Hillary Clinton declared that she was “adamantly against illegal immigration.”
But by the time Mrs. Clinton was running for president in 2016, she was courting the Latino vote, pledging not to deport unauthorized immigrants who did not have criminal records.
Now many liberal Democrats, including those who call for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, seek to erase the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. Under the banner of inclusiveness, equality, human rights, racial reconciliation and reparations for American interventions in the third world, those liberals demand sanctuary for those who make it past the Border Patrol or overstay a visa. Few speak openly of open borders, but that is essentially what they are calling for.
Over the years, righteous outrage against restrictionists has been fueled by some truly odious people. Lance Morrow of Time magazine described the problem in 1980: “Ku Klux Klansmen have paraded around Florida lately, dispensing their old nativist bile and giving a bad name to an argument (‘America for Americans,’ the picket signs say) that has more thoughtful and respectable proponents.”
Today, President Trump has brought such outrage into the mainstream with the repugnant charge that unauthorized immigrants “infest our country.” But Mr. Trump does not deserve all the blame for our dysfunction. The immigration debate has been warped by tribal passions on the left as well.
What the left misses is that as Mr. Trump pursues his draconian efforts to stem the tide, many Americans think he is fighting the good fight. They may be dismayed at his manic nastiness and his proclivity for crude insult. But they admire his willingness to wage what they see as a patriotic battle to defend common people.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the prominent liberal historian, believed that immigration restrictions were essential. He wrote in “The Disuniting of America” that while “any curtailment of immigration offends something in the American soul,” it was also true that “uncontrolled immigration is an impossibility.”
President Ronald Reagan in 1986 proclaimed that he and Congress had fulfilled that duty. He signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, combining an amnesty with a program to stop future illegal immigration by requiring employers to verify that their new hires were legal.
The amnesty was delivered. Work-site enforcement was not. Illegal immigration exploded. From 1990 to 2007, the unauthorized population grew at an annual average of 500,000. It reached a peak of 12.2 million in 2007, before falling to its present level of about 11 million.
In 2004, as the national immigration reporter for the San Diego-based Copley newspaper chain, I returned to Arizona to report on Proposition 200, a statewide ballot initiative to deny public services to unauthorized immigrants. Public anxiety had grown in tandem with the state’s illegal immigrant population, which had jumped to 480,000 in 2005 from an estimated 88,000 in 1990.
In Phoenix I spoke with Donna Neill, a volunteer organizer in a working-class neighborhood and the driving force in the construction of a park that was used primarily by immigrant children. Nevertheless, she supported Proposition 200.
She pointed to crowded classrooms, apartments where two or three families crammed into a space meant for one and home additions in violation of housing codes that went unenforced. “We’re losing the simple things that make a society a society, but no one wants to step forward because they’re afraid of crossing some line and being called a racist,” said Ms. Neill.
Despite a publicity campaign that branded the proposition as racist, it was approved by a large margin. Exit polls showed that 47 percent of Latino voters had supported it. “People think they’re driving down wages and taking jobs,” John Garcia, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona, told me. (Such concerns would later be overshadowed by Latinos’ anger at a state law that targeted illegal immigration and by the neighborhood “sweeps” orchestrated by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.)
In 2008, I left the newspaper industry. But the immigration story still tugged at me. I was fascinated by its human, political and moral complexity. I also wanted to push back against the campaign by activist groups to label restrictionism as inherently racist. A year later, I became a researcher and writer for the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks restrictions on immigration.
I disagree with some of the center’s hard-line positions. I favor a generous welcome for those who were brought here illegally as children and support comprehensive reform that would reprise the 1986 amnesty-plus-enforcement compromise. But restrictionists are right to insist that any new reform must guarantee work-site controls. They also make valid points in pushing for a system of legal immigration like the one developed by Canada, which favors people with education and skills.
No one understood the moral ambiguity of the immigration debate better than the historian and immigration scholar John Higham. Higham was a liberal contrarian who observed that while restrictionists “claimed to be the hard-boiled realists,” their realism “was seldom free of prejudice or hysteria.” On the other side, “anti-restrictionists tended to gloss over the dilemmas that immigration imposed.”
Higham urged adoption of the 1986 immigration legislation and was dismayed when it wasn’t enforced. In the Higham archives at Johns Hopkins University, where he taught for many years, I found a letter in which he identified himself as “a mild restrictionist.”
I like that label. It suggests the conciliatory spirit that our country so badly needs. As the political divide around immigration intensified in the years before his death in 2003, Higham worried about the prospects for such a spirit. “Are we experiencing, basically, an increasing indifference of people to one another, both within and between ethnic groups?” he wrote. “If so, immigration may prove to be just an aspect of a wider social fragmentation.”
Higham, it seems, anticipated the tempest now upon us.
Jerry Kammer, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2006, is a senior research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and writing a book about the politics of immigration.
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