Barbara Jordan Made 1994 a High-Water Mark in the Effort to Stop Illegal Immigration

In a 1994 speech at the National Press Club to discuss her plans for a worksite identification program pivotal to efforts to stop illegal immigration at the worksite, Barbara Jordan claimed the moral high ground for that effort. “If we are to preserve our immigration tradition and our ability to say yes to so many of those who seek entry, we must also have the strength to say no when we must,” she said.

Jordan’s moral authority as a civil rights leader and her popularity on the national stage made her a formidable figure as the chairwoman of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, a position to which she had been appointed by President Bill Clinton.

Her forceful stance in favor of firm federal action to stop illegal immigration at the worksite was one of several developments that made 1994 a high-water mark in the effort to stop illegal immigration.

In California, Gov. Pete Wilson revived his lagging re-election campaign Proposition 187, a ballot measure that sought to deny illegal immigrants and their children welfare benefits, public education, and non-emergency health care. It was passed by a wide margin, only to be blocked by a federal court on constitutional grounds.

At the White House, President Clinton, seeking both to ease voters’ fears about illegal immigration and to preempt a possible challenge from Wilson to his bid for re-election in 1996, ordered a massive buildup of border security in California that became known as Operation Gatekeeper.

The tide seemed to be turning against illegal immigration. Cecilia Munoz, the lobbyist for the National Council of La Raza who is now serving as President Obama’s closest adviser on immigration policy, was an embattled figure in 1994. She took on the difficult task of challenging Barbara Jordan, claiming that Jordan’s proposed reforms would endanger the civil rights of Latinos.

Munoz condemned Jordan’s proposals as “a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease.” She was particularly upset at the proposal that employers verify that all workers were authorized to work in the United States.

The issue of worksite verification had stirred controversy for more than a decade, drawing resistance from Latino activist organizations, businesses, and civil libertarians. They warned that employers, fearful of being punished for hiring an unauthorized worker, would act with excessive caution and screen out Latinos.

In the early 1980s, when the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy included a call for a worker verification system in its recommendations to Congress, the New York Times editorial page endorsed it and criticized the critics.

“The only practical right the Simpson-Mazzoli bill would curtail is the right to use counterfeit identification. In exchange, the nation would greatly strengthen its capacity to control the borders and let in legal applicants, patiently waiting in line, instead of gatecrashers,” a 1982 editorial declared. “To us, the medicine’s side effects are slight compared with the disease.”

While public opinion polls consistently showed support for efforts to stop illegal immigration and reduce legal immigration, Jordan’s proposals encountered opposition not only from immigrant advocacy groups like Munoz’s National Council of La Raza, but also from a host of business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the employer-friendly, open-borders advocates of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Against such formidable political and economic forces, public opinion didn’t have much of a chance. The public’s anxieties about illegal immigration remained diffuse and poorly coordinated for the most part, while the left-right coalition mounted a highly organized and well-financed campaign against the Jordan Commission’s proposals to check illegal immigration and reduce legal immigration from its annual rate of about 800,000 in the mid-1990s.

The mismatch illustrated a phenomenon described in a broader political context by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, who wrote, “The story of organizational triumph over popular concerns has been repeated time after time.” Grover Norquist, the anti-tax zealot who supported expansive immigration policies had an even more concise explanation: “Intensity tops preference.”

The most powerful resource on the restrictionist side was Barbara Jordan. Her death from complications from leukemia in 1996 at age 59 was a terrible blow, said Romano Mazzoli, former Democratic U.S. Rep. from Kentucky and a sponsor of the 1986 immigration reform legislation.

“Barbara Jordan was such a respected figure, he said. “She had a remarkable combination of integrity and intelligence and prestige that I think she could have pushed the Clinton administration and persuaded Congress — if she hadn’t died. That was a terrible loss to the country.”

In the absence of Jordan’s moral authority and insistence that Congress must restrict immigration in the national interest, the reforms that she favored faltered in 1996. Said Susan Martin, staff director of the Jordan Commission, “I see the period of 1996 and beyond a big failure because by then it was clear where we had to go. But Congress didn’t do much to get there.”

Ten years after Jordan’s death, demographer Jeffrey Passel reported that over the previous 15 years the unauthorized population of the United States had been growing by about 500,000 every year. Passel estimated that the illegal immigrant population had reached 11.5 million.

By that time, Cecilia Munoz, still a lobbyist and vice president with the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), was working with the Bush administration on sweeping legislation that became known as comprehensive immigration reform, which would provide legal status for nearly all legal immigrants and guarantee employers a large supply of low-wage foreign labor.

Advocates of the reform legislation praised its proposal for “earned legalization” and eschewed any reference to “amnesty” because of the failed bargain of 1986. Once again they said they would accept some form of worksite enforcement as part of a compromise with those who wanted to stop illegal immigration.

A 2003 story in the Los Angeles Times showed how tenuous that acceptance was.

The story identified NCLR as a “group considered an arch defender of illegal immigration.” It identified Munoz as a supporter of “earned legalization”, but then noted: “Her enthusiasm flags though, when asked if the government should crack down on subsequent illegal immigration that undoubtedly would follow a new amnesty.”

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