The Immigration Problem Is Worse Than You Think
America's "unchecked immigration is a threat to our ability to hold together as a people, our ability to maintain the Unum while honoring the Pluribus," writes Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) fellow Jerry Kammer. His new book, Losing Control: How a Left-Right Coalition Blocked Immigration Reform and Provoked the Backlash that Elected Trump, insightfully documents America's complex, longstanding politics behind a modern immigration morass.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Kammer notes that "while I favor clear limits and enforcement that is both humane and firm, I celebrate immigrants as a vital part of our national story." Yet, like centrist-conservative commentators such as Reihan Salam, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, and Andrew Sullivan, Kammer emphasizes that American national cohesion demands an immigration "pause." Tellingly, after the landmark 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, America's immigrants grew from 9.6 million to about 47 million in 2020, while illegal alien, about 3.5 million in 1990, peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million.
The "liberal restrictionist" Kammer focuses on the unfulfilled promise of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) to stop illegal immigration. ICRA "has proved to be one of the most consequential failures of governance in American history." Accordingly, "I support a comprehensive immigration reform that includes a generous amnesty if — and this is a big if — Congress ensures that it will not repeat the failure of IRCA."
By contrast, a booming fake document industry following ICRA has meant that illegal alien "workers could pretend to be legal, and unscrupulous employers could pretend to believe them," Kammer notes. Past proposals, such as in 1994 to create a Social Security number verification program, have run afoul, among others, of civil libertarians and free-market conservatives worried about "Big Brother totalitarianism." "Republican insider, free-market advocate, and Microsoft lobbyist Grover Norquist orchestrated a protest that likened the proposal to Nazi dehumanization of Jews," Kammer writes.
Norquist illustrates how the "immigration lobby is so large because many ethnic groups, politicians, and corporate chiefs have a stake in immigration policy" in a "strange-bedfellows, left-right coalition." Kammer highlights how "[e]mployers push for labor markets jammed with eager job-seekers," and the "single most powerful interest group in the debate that preceded" ICRA "was Western agribusiness." Capital was the clear winner in this division of cheap labor, as one study showed that inflation-adjusted farm wages fell 8.7 percent during the 1980s, while non-agricultural wages rose 11 percent.
Meanwhile liberal-leftist elites like the billionaire political financier George Soros, a self-described "stateless statesman," consistently engage in "moral posturing and self-satisfaction" concerning immigration. "Heavily concentrated in Manhattan, liberal foundations occupy an insular world of tremendous wealth, privilege and sophistication," Kammer notes of the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and others. Likewise, New York Times editorials have consistently "preached the ethic of diversity, inclusiveness, and commitment to a borderless, globalized world" for cosmopolitan Times readers.
Dissenters from this immigration establishment like Kammer and CIS have faced a "campaign of distortion and character assassination against restrictionists." Most prominent are the "Jacobins, ruthless and radical," at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a leftist hate group. They follow a well worn path of pro-immigration polemics blazed in 1993 by former Arizona state senator Alfredo Gutierrez: "We reduce complicated problems to racism, not because it is racism, but because it works."
In reality, Gutierrez manifests a "divide between the Mexican-American political class, which resisted limits as it sought political influence, and the concerns of ordinary Mexican-Americans," Kammer notes. Notably, most California Latino voters favored the 1994 ballot initiative Proposition 187, which prohibited non-emergency social services to illegal aliens. In a California overrun by poor illegal aliens, many Latinos "resented the swelling ranks of newcomers they regarded as a threat to their chance for a better life. It had been that way for decades."
Latino reaction to low-skilled immigrant "huddled masses" belies for Kammer ubiquitous citations in immigration debates of Emma Lazarus's 1883 poem "The New Colossus," with its "implicit call for open borders." "Since 1990, about 90 percent of the increase in people living below the government's poverty lines has come among Hispanics," columnist Robert Samuelson wrote in 2006. That same year, Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman coldly contrasted Lazarus nostalgia with the hard fact that "modern America is a welfare state," which "low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel."
Similarly, according to Kammer's analysis, the "divide between the black political class and the black working class is one of the least examined subplots in the national immigration story. Many prominent blacks see the immigrant-rights movement as part of the larger civil rights struggle" with "Hispanics as natural allies in the struggle for equality." Yet in 1998, RAND Corporation researchers estimated that income for black American male high school dropouts would have been 10–16 percent higher without immigration.
From WEB DuBois in 1895 to Barbara Jordan a century later, black leaders have continually noted the hardships unskilled immigrants impose upon American blacks. Frank Morris, former Congressional Black Caucus Foundation executive director and CIS board member, often cites famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. "Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant," he stated in 1853.
Correspondingly, many black leaders supported the 1924 National Origins Act, which has lived in historical infamy for its "blatantly discriminatory" preference for north European immigrants, Kammer notes. However, the act "tightened the labor market, helping to set the stage for a robust labor movement and the rise of the blue-collar middle class" until the 1960s. This heeded the 1922 warning of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., father of an equally famous liberal historian, that the "swarming of foreigners into the great industries occurred at considerable cost to the native working men."
America's labor movement presents more immigration ironies for Kammer, as Samuel Gompers, who founded the American Federation of Labor in 1886, "had no patience for advocates of open borders." Declining organized labor influence (America's workforce was 35 percent unionized in 1955 but only 14 percent in 1990) has reversed historic labor opposition to illegal immigration. Providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens gives unions a rare hope for future members.
"One of the principal reasons for Donald Trump's stunning victory in 2016," Kammer notes, was "unchecked immigration," yet President Trump's dithering on mandatory E-Verify is another immigration inconsistency. His "opportunistic and malleable" policies have included "firm and often draconian" border control, but his "commitment to worksite enforcement now appears as bogus as a fraudulent green card." Yet a "virtual wall around the American workplace would be far more effective in stopping illegal immigration than a wall across a border that stretches for nearly 2,000 miles" across forbidding terrain.
Kammer's extensive examination of the forces historically shaping American immigration policy is indispensable for understanding these issues. Many voted for Trump in order to drain the swamp. Kammer has shown that perhaps the deepest political bogs involve uncontrolled immigration.