A couple of weeks ago I happened to hear a This American Life episode about an immigration controversy in the 1990s, one that I had entirely forgotten. The immigration issue was already heating up then and had already become politicized. Congress created the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1990, and in 1994, President Clinton appointed former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas--a celebrated black female trail blazer--to head it. The commission issued an interim report in 1994 and a final report in 1997, a year after Jordan died of cancer. Before turning to its findings, however, I would like to put the immigration issue in broader historical context.
Immigration into the United States, most of it from Europe, was very high in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I haven't found annual figures, but the census bureau reports that 8.8 million immigrants entered the US in 1901-10, and 6.7 million more in 1911-20. Many of them came from southern and eastern Europe, and then, as now, some Americans argued that they could not easily be assimilated and threatened American culture. In addition, by the 1920s, the American labor movement thought immigration needed to be curtailed so as to protect workers from unfair competition. The result was the 1924 immigration act, passed with very little public debate, which established low, strict national quotas on European and Asian immigration (although none, interestingly enough, on Latin American immigration.) It had a massive effect. Immigration during the 1920s fell to 4.1 million, and fell to 528,000 during 1931-40 and just 1 million in 1941-50. The tight limits on immigration in the 1930s left many threatened people stranded in Europe, but also made it easier, it seems to me, for the New Deal to at least ease the impact of the Depression, whose programs were aimed mostly at citizens and did not have to face criticism for helping new arrivals.
Immigration rose significantly to 2.5 million the 1950s--still considerably less than in the 1920s. Then, in 1965, a new immigration act, passed in the midst of the Great Society, eased things a good deal more. Immigration reached 2.2 million in 1961-70, 4.5 million in 1971-80, and 7.3 million during the 1980s. A good deal of that immigration was illegal, but an act of 1986 retroactively gave millions of immigrants legal status. Immigration was continuing at at least that rate during the 1990s when the commission was appointed, and judging from its report, a bipartisan consensus believed that something had to be done.
The report argued that three categories of people should be allowed to immigrate legally, as before: family members of current US residents, people whom American companies wanted to hire, and refugees. They clearly believed, however, that the number of people admitted in each of these categories had to be reduced, and they wanted to confine new family immigration to nuclear family members. In addition, the report took a hard line against illegal immigration. "An effectively regulated immigration policy," the wrote, "establishes limits on the number of immigrants
that are consistent with the goals of the various categories under which immigrants enter. Moreover, these limits must be enforceable and enforced. We underscore our commitment to curtailing illegal immigration as embodied in our 1994 recommendations." They were also worried about the impact of immigration upon American workers. "A properly regulated system will also provide protection to American workers against unfair competition arising from immigrant categories that are designed to
enhance U.S. economic strength. A higher level of job protection should be made available to the most vulnerable in our society." They also came down firmly on the side of the "Americanization" of immigrants, by means of "English language training, civic education, and preparation for naturalization and effective citizen participation. Americanization—by which we mean cultivation of a shared commitment to the American values of liberty, democracy, and equal opportunity—is desirable and possible regardless of the nationality, native language, or religious background of immigrants and their children."
In 1995, the commission recommended limiting legal immigration to a little over half a million a year and called upon Congress to set annual quotas. That represented a reduction of nearly 200,000 a year from currently expected levels and they anticipated that it would take 5-8 years to reach the new, lower level. Most of the report went into great detail defining the various categories of people who should be allowed to immigrate. The report came down strongly against an "agriculture guest worker program," which it argued was not necessary.
The final 1997 report, submitted to the Congressional leadership after Jordan's untimely death, repeated many of these recommendations but added a section, "Curbing Unlawful Migration." (An initial 1994 report had also addressed these issues.) It quoted a 1996 INS estimate (the Immigration and Naturalization Service was of course the ancestor of ICE) that five million undocumented immigrants lived in the US, that they were increasing by 275,000 annually, and that a majority of them had entered the country illegally. To stop illegal entries they recommended various new steps at the border, which were already underway, and a system of penalties culminating in a jail sentence for repeated attempts to enter illegally. Most of all, they recommended a better "employment authorization verification system" to stop employers from hiring illegal aliens, using a computerized registry for valid social security numbers. They also called for "Restricting eligibility of illegal aliens for publicly-funded services or assistance except those made available on an emergency basis or for similar compelling reasons to protect public health and safety or to conform to constitutional
requirements." And last but not least, they insisted that deportation orders had to be enforced, as they were not at the time, with an estimated 250,000 aliens remaining in the country despite receiving removal orders.
To say that this document, written by a commission led by one of the outstanding liberals of her time, makes extraordinary reading today, is an understatement. Its bipartisan authors thought that immigration had to be capped where it was and somewhat reduced. They thought those who had remained in the country illegally had to be removed. And they believed steps had to be taken to stop the growth of new economic sectors that relied largely or even exclusively on illegal immigrants. While their recommendations, if implemented, would hardly have cut immigration to the extent that the 1924 law did in the 1930s and 1940s, they would have left us with a very different United States than the one that we have today. They would have given voice to the very strong current in American public opinion who believed that immigration, especially illegal immigration, was too high, and needed to be controlled. But they were not implemented, and illegal entry into the country, although now well past its peak, has continued, until today there are somewhere between 11 million and 20 million illegal immigrants working in the United States.
I don't think anyone really knows what the effect of those immigrants on our economy has been. It's a very politicized question. There is no doubt whatever, however, that the growth in that population has been a political catastrophe. I think it was probably the single biggest factor in alienating a big segment of our native population from the leadership of both political parties, neither one of which tried to do much about this situation before 2016 (and certainly not by cutting immigration). Donald Trump was the first major candidate to run on intolerance of illegal immigrants, and he wiped out establishment Republicans easily and won a close election as President. ICE is now trying to make life difficult enough for illegal immigrants to deport some, induce others to leave on their own, and deter others from coming into the country. The wall probably is a waste of money, but even though border crossings are down, 40,000 people apprehended every month--and what appears to be an utterly unknown number who are not apprehended--is still a lot. Meanwhile, we now have a labor force of between five and ten million workers who, because they have no right to be here, cannot vote. Those people, if they could vote, would surely have a tremendous effect on elections in much of the country.
Given that the 1924 act was followed 70 years later by the commission's recognition, one could hypothesize that a periodic reaction against immigrants is indeed part of our 80-year historical cycle. The same thing was also happening in the 1850s, but then, slavery, rather than immigration, became the focus of those concerned with the rights of free American workers. Now, it seems, Democratic activists and local politicians are much more concerned with the problems of illegal aliens than they are with the working class citizens who have deserted them on this issue. The Democrats are reflexively opposing everything that Trump is doing and arguing that racism is the key to his policies. But the commission that put together its recommendations 25 years ago clearly did not believe any such thing. The failure to implement those recommendations, in my opinion, contributed enormously to the collapse of the US political system.