by John Fonte
The Democrats’ 2020 choice for vice-president of the United States is Kamala Harris, a U.S. senator from California who has compared our courageous, underpaid, overworked, and often Latino, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to the Ku Klux Klan. How did we get here exactly?
Let us look back and examine how immigration enforcement has been undermined for decades and then discuss what it means for the 2020 presidential election.
The Sunlight Foundation reports that between 2007 and 2012, 678 lobbying groups – including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Nursery and Landscape Association, the dairy industry, agribusiness, high-tech companies, major universities, the ACLU, the Service Employees International Union, the National Council of La Raza (now UnidosUS), and many other lobbyists – spent $1.5 billion to influence immigration policy.
Likewise, from 2001 to 2020, leading philanthropic foundations – including Carnegie, Ford, Tides, Atlantic Philanthropies, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations – invested $400 million on immigration issues. The bulk of these enormous sums was spent to promote three main goals: increased legal immigration, mass amnesty for illegal aliens, and the gutting of any serious enforcement of U.S. immigration laws.
I have drawn all of the material above from a new book, Losing Control: How a Left-Right Coalition Blocked Immigration Reform and Provoked the Backlash that Elected Trump, published earlier this year by the estimable Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Author Jerry Kammer is an old-fashioned liberal and shoe-leather reporter who favors a lawful, regulated immigration system. He is not a fan of conservatism or of President Trump, but he is scrupulously fair and thorough in detailing the history of illegal immigration from the Truman Administration to the present day.
Three Decades from Amnesty to “Earned Legalization”
In 1986 Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) that was supposed to resolve the illegal immigration problem once and for all. IRCA provided an amnesty (and it was called amnesty at the time) for nearly 3 million illegal immigrants. The legislation promised to prevent future illegal immigration through enforcement provisions, including sanctions against employers and accurate documentation from the laborers that they were legally authorized to work in the United States.
Instead of contracting, however, the illegal immigrant population exploded to 12.2 million by 2007. The worker ID verification system was rife with widespread fraud and employer sanctions were essentially nonexistent. Under Bill Clinton enforcement was weak.
Originally, George W. Bush put a libertarian, James Ziglar, in charge of the immigration service who portrayed immigrants (rather than the American people) as the “customers” of the agency. As Kammer notes, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and later Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted worksite raids to arrest illegal immigrants, employers screamed foul and contacted their senators and congressmen to get INS and ICE to back off.
For years, the political leadership in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations along with many in Congress – including plenty of Republicans like Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) – had scant interest in enforcing immigration laws. Needless to say, Kammer reports, morale plummeted among federal agents tasked with the dangerous job of combating illegal immigration.
Since the passage of IRCA over three decades ago, Congress has tried three times to “fix” immigration, both legal and illegal.
In the 1990s, an immigration commission headed by civil rights icon and former U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan (D-TX) recommended a serious legal immigration policy that would focus on skills rather than on extended family migration and suggested reductions in legal immigration. Significantly, the Jordan Commission proposed repairing the problem of fraudulent worker documentation with new computerized systems. Republican immigration subcommittee chairmen Alan Simpson (R-WY) in the Senate and Lamar Smith (R-TX) in the House introduced legislation based on the Jordan Commission report.
Intense resistance to Simpson-Smith came from left-wing activist groups, corporate lobbies, and libertarians. Business- and libertarian-oriented congressional Republicans opposed cutting legal immigration and fought the proposed worker identification system. An ailing Barbara Jordan died. President Clinton, who had supported the bill, changed his position. Hence, Simpson-Smith (what Jerry Kammer called the “high water mark” of the attempt to control runaway immigration) failed.
The two other attempts at broad immigration legislation were proposals that would have implemented mass amnesty for illegal immigrants immediately upon passage of the bill, with the promise of border and interior enforcement sometime in the future. These initiatives included the McCain-Kennedy “comprehensive immigration reform” legislation strongly backed by the Bush Administration in 2007 and the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill of 2013 promoted by President Obama. This proposed amnesty legislation of 2007 and 2013 (no longer called amnesty but “earned legalization,” among many other euphemisms) had overwhelming support from the nation’s elites but was defeated essentially by a grassroots populist uprising led by Numbers USA that managed to influence many in Congress.
Left and Right for Open Borders
As Kammer outlines, in the history of immigration policy, one salient point has been consistent time and time again. Since the passage of IRCA, 34 years ago, a powerful Left-Right coalition has waged an unrelenting campaign against enforcing our immigration laws. I mentioned some of these organizations and individuals earlier—the ACLU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and George Soros.
But there are many others on the Right as well as the Left, including the Koch brothers network, the Cato Institute, FWD.US (a coalition of immigration expansionists in the Silicon Valley founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg), Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
All of the above have contributed significantly to gutting immigration enforcement both at the border and, more importantly, at the work site. The victims of their machinations are American workers forced to compete with imported lower-wage labor in blue-collar and white-collar occupations.
For example, the Census Bureau reports that 74 percent of Americans who graduated from universities with STEM degrees are not currently working in STEM jobs – a phenomenon caused in part by the continuous importation of foreign workers (through H1B and other guest worker programs) by high-tech oligarchs and other corporations.
Kammer writes that the words of American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers in 1918 ring true today: “Those who favor unrestricted immigration care nothing for the people. They are simply desirous of flooding the country with unskilled as well as skilled labor of other lands for the purpose of breaking down American standards.”
The Trump Administration has had some success with border enforcement. Kammer writes that ICE is clearly more active in work site enforcement than during the Obama years. Consequently, morale among border agents is greatly improved.
Their interior enforcement strategy, however, would be stronger if the administration returned to its original position and supported a mandatory electronic verification process (E-Verify) requiring employers to check the legal status of potential employees, as proposed in legislation by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR).
Recently, when the Tennessee Valley Authority planned to replace 20 percent of its American tech workforce with foreign H1B workers, the president issued an executive order requiring federal agencies and contractors to make sure that American employees were not displaced by foreigners. TVA authorities quickly dropped their plans.
Immigration at Center Stage in 2020
The 2020 presidential election offers Americans diametrically opposed views on immigration policy.
Biden and Harris have made it clear that they favor mass amnesty for illegal immigrants, the dismantling of immigration enforcement, and increasing immigration of all types, including low skilled foreign workers who would directly compete with the most economically vulnerable Americans of all ethnic groups. Biden specifically has stated that there will be no deportations for the first 100 days he is president. This is an open invitation to the world: come on in.
After this 100-day period only convicted felons would be deported. Free to stay in the United States, for example, would be illegal immigrants convicted of assault, petty larceny, vandalism, perjury, computer hacking, resisting arrest, some forms of manslaughter, and drunk driving that resulted in innocent deaths.
Further, Biden and Harris advocate a mass amnesty for the estimated 11-12 million illegal aliens in the country. Biden would also like to increase legal immigration and bring in more guest workers under H1B and other programs. He recommends increasing the number of refugees and asylum seekers admitted to the United States and, indeed, expanding the definition of “asylum” to bring in even more people.
Biden promises to end Trump’s “remain in Mexico” program that requires asylum seekers from Central America to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are being adjudicated. Instead, he favors their immediate entry into the United States before their case has been settled and they are deemed eligible for asylum.
In sum, there is no doubt that the election on November 3 – or whenever the presidential winner is determined – will have a momentous effect on all the issues related to immigration policy: the total amount of legal immigration, the degree of enforcement (if any), the prospects for the patriotic assimilation of immigrants, and the perennial question of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
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John Fonte is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or be Ruled by Others? (Encounter Books) winner of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) book award for 2012.