Not So Long Ago, Democrats Favored Immigration Curbs
Controversial RAISE Act is 'second coming' of 1990s commission headed by civil rights icon Barbara Jordan
A prominent politician, announcing the results of a commission appointed to study immigration, urged Congress to significantly cut legal migrations to the United States.
The rationale offered was that a flood of lesser-educated, low-skilled immigration drives down wages and hurts employment prospects for Americans with comparable skills and education.
“What the commission is concerned about are the unskilled workers in our society in an age in which unskilled workers have far too few opportunities open to them,” the politician announced. “When immigrants are less well-educated and less-skilled, they may pose economic hardships to the most vulnerable of Americans, particularly those who are unemployed or under-employed.”
President Donald Trump? Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) or David Perdue (R-Ga.)?
Try Barbara Jordan, civil rights icon and first black woman elected to Congress from the South.
The nine-member Commission on Immigration Reform that the former Texas congresswoman headed in the 1990s produced a pair of reports — one calling for tighter controls on illegal immigration and another calling for cutting back legal immigration to about 550,000 entrants a year.
The specifics look a lot like the RAISE Act, the bill Cotton and Perdue introduced earlier this year to fierce criticism.
The Jordan commission proposed prioritizing skills and education in immigration, while limiting family-based migration to spouses and minor children, unlike the current system, which allows extended relatives to come into the country.
That is similar to the provisions of the RAISE Act, as are Jordan commission recommendations for reducing refugees to 50,000 per year and eliminating the diversity visa lottery, which awards roughly 50,000 green cards annually to applicants chosen randomly from around the world.
"The RAISE Act really is the second coming of the Barbara Jordan commission," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Robert Law, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, agreed.
"It's literally, word-for-word, how the press release from Cotton and Perdue reads," he said.
What Jordan Recommended
Indeed, the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act bears strong resemblance to the Jordan commission recommendations and to subsequent legislation that it inspired. Although the Jordan commission did not call for a points system like that proposed in the Cotton-Perdue bill, it did place the same priority on high-skilled immigration.
The Jordan commission's proposed reduction to 535,000 is similar to the projections of how many legal immigrants the RAISE Act would allow annually. In the 1990s, that represented a reduction of about a third. Compared to today's system, it could be a cut by as much as half.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who sponsored legislation based on the Jordan commission and has agreed to sponsor a House version of the RAISE Act, also sees the similarity.
"The knee-jerk Democratic opposition to the RAISE Act does suggest how radicalized the mainstream Left has become on immigration."
"Legal immigration in the U.S. under the RAISE Act would remain among the most generous levels in the world; half a million legal immigrants would be admitted annually, which aligns with the figure recommended by the Jordan commission," he wrote in response to questions posed by a reporter from The Atlantic.
David Cross, a spokesman for Oregonians for Immigration Reform, said Jordan recognized that minorities are disproportionately more likely to face competition from immigrants.
"I think about the issue of black unemployment, particularly black youth unemployment," he said. "I certainly think that's something Barbara Jordan would have been mindful of."
To see how much the immigration debate has changed over the past two decades, it is instructive to review the reaction that the Jordan commission received. The bipartisan commission, itself, endorsed the proposals on legal immigration by an 8-1 vote. The lone dissenter was the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
While the RAISE Act has been labeled racist by more than one critic — particularly after President Donald Trump endorsed it earlier this month — the similar proposals by the Jordan commission met with bipartisan praise. Democratic then-President Bill Clinton endorsed it. Then-Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Calif.) said he would co-sponsor legislation based on it.
"Consistent with my own views, the commission's recommendations are pro-family, pro-work, pro-naturalization," Clinton said in June 1995.
That's not to say the recommendations did not draw opposition. Pro-immigration groups called it misguided. Pro-business Republicans such as then-House Majority Leader Richard K. "Dick" Armey (R-Texas) feared it would hurt economic growth.
But few questioned the motives of Jordan or other members of the commission, and critics were not so quick to call it bigoted.
"The knee-jerk Democratic opposition to the RAISE Act does suggest how radicalized the mainstream Left has become on immigration," Law said.
He added: "It seems like it's not the message but the messenger."
Congress did not adopt the Jordan commission's recommendations in whole. Krikorian attributed that, in part, to the former congresswoman's untimely death in 1996 at the age of 59.
"When she died, Clinton was free to do whatever he wanted," he said.
A 'Clever Tactic' to Kill Immigration Reform
Then-Sens. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) maneuvered in the Judiciary Committee to split the proposal into two pieces — one on legal immigration and another on illegal immigration.
"It was a clever tactic, quite frankly," Krikorian said.
It helped killed the legal immigration reforms, but even then, the vote on the illegal immigration bill is revealing.
The Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act passed in 1996 with solid Democratic support. In the House, almost as many Democrats — 88 — voted "yes" as the 92 who voted "no." It divided Senate Democrats, as well, with 22 voting "yes" and 24 voting "no." Liberal stalwarts such as Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) supported the bill.
Meanwhile, senators on the floor of the upper chamber voted 80-20 to kill a proposal to reduce immigration by extended relatives of legal residents by at least 10 percent over the ensuing five years. Feinstein offered a similar amendment, but it would have allowed some visas for adult children of legal permanent residents. That failed 74-26.
The House that year killed provisions of the immigration bill that would have cut legal migration by 30 percent after five years and restriction chain migration. The vote was an overwhelming 238 to 183 and included 75 Republicans in the majority. Still, 25 House Democrats sided with the immigration restrictionists.
It seems unlikely that the RAISE Act would attract anywhere close to that level of support from current House Democrats. Law attributed the 1996 vote to the waning vestiges of a Democratic Party primarily concerned with working people in the United States.
"Pretty much since 2013, the Democratic Party totally sold out on immigration," he said. "I would suggest the Democratic Party has been paying lip service to this constituency and taking it for granted."
The Democratic Party of today marches almost in unison in favor of mass immigration and blurs the distinction between legal and illegal migration, Krikorian said. He noted that 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and runner-up Bernie Sanders both advocated essentially applying the "wet foot/dry foot" Cold War policy toward Cubans escaping the communist regime to every immigrant — anyone who can make it to America can stay (provided he or she does not commit a crime).
That consensus in the party does not appear to have evaporated since the election, although Krikorian pointed to recent articles by progressive writers T.A. Frank in Vanity Fair, Peter Beinart in The Atlantic, and CNN's Fareed Zakaria questioning the party's immigration absolutism.
"Maybe a few people are having second thoughts about the rush to mass immigration," he said.