Prominent Democrats have recently taken to striking pro-enforcement poses on immigration. They see the gap between the president’s stance and that of the overwhelming majority of the Republican base, and they want to peel off enough of those voters–or just induce them to stay home–to overcome the GOP’s narrow majorities in the past few elections.
During the third debate of last year’s presidential campaign, John Kerry promised to “toughen up our borders” and “crack down on illegal hiring.” Hillary Clinton has turned heads with remarks like “I am . . . adamantly against illegal immigrants.” And over the past week, the Democratic governors of both New Mexico and Arizona have declared their border counties disaster areas; New Mexico’s Bill Richardson blasted Washington for not showing “the commitment or the leadership to deal with border issues,” while Janet Napolitano of Arizona explained that “the federal government has not done what it needs to do and has promised to do.”
If the Democrats were serious about pursuing Republican-leaning voters dissatisfied with the immigration blather from the White House, you might see a productive bidding war between the parties to see who could better reflect the public’s long-ignored desire to control immigration. Unfortunately, they’re just doing a two-step, weaving fairy tales for broad public consumption, while telling the truth to their real constituency. Hillary, for instance, has earned a D- from Americans for Better Immigration for her utterly conventional positions in support of amnesty, etc. The southwestern governors, for their part, have taken every opportunity to facilitate illegal immigration; Richardson recently approved a bill to provide illegal aliens with in-state tuition at New Mexico state colleges, while Napolitano earlier his year vetoed a bill reaffirming the authority of state and local cops to enforce immigration law.
There’s no reason this has to be so. Given the importance of business to the Republican coalition, Democrats should own this issue, boasting of their efforts to protect American workers and minorities and to preserve the integrity of the welfare state.
But this won’t happen because open immigration has become an immutable value of the Left. There is no policy the liberal establishment won’t abandon, no election it won’t forfeit, no constituency it won’t sacrifice to ensure the survival and success of open borders.
To take perhaps the least important, but most extreme example, look at the group formerly known as Zero Population Growth. Whatever the merit of its goals, its name was refreshingly devoid of artifice and nicely summed up its raison d’etre. The impulse to stop the growth of America’s population was an important element of liberalism in the 1960s and 70s. But it started to become an embarrassment once the fertility rate of American women reached replacement level (the number of births per woman needed to maintain a stable population, i.e., zero population growth). Today, population growth continues but it is driven mainly by immigration and births to immigrants–whether good or bad, this is a statistical fact. So, did ZPG shift its focus from birth control to immigration control? No–instead, it changed its name and abandoned its very reason for being! Three years ago, the group morphed into “Population Connection,” an anodyne name whose chief virtue is that it allows the group to avoid any awkward questions about immigration.
The environmental establishment has shown the same tendency. It used to be an article of faith among green groups that slowing America’s population growth was critical to preserving wilderness and protecting endangered species. But once that could only be achieved by limiting immigration, it was dropped like a hot potato. This issue has been most visible in the Sierra Club. Over the past several years, a group of Club members dedicated to limiting immigration has been involved in several campaigns to change Club policy. The board elite waged a scorched-earth campaign to avoid acknowledging mathematical realities of immigration, going so far as to silence immigration-control liberals running for board seats by filing SLAPP suits–a favorite tool used by corporations and developers against environmentalists.
Same with the ACLU. The group refused an open-and-shut free speech case in New York City–because it was about limiting immigration. In 1999, an immigration-control group named Project USA started putting up billboards in New York with pictures of two children with the inoffensive (and accurate) caption, “Immigration is doubling US population in our lifetimes,” citing the Census Bureau as the source. City officials threatened the billboard companies with financial retaliation if they weren’t taken down immediately, and the companies caved. One staff attorney told Project USA privately that the ACLU couldn’t take such an obvious free-speech case because “there is a large and growing immigrants’ rights faction within the organization.”
Ditto with Big Labor. From the days of Samuel Gompers (an immigrant himself) until just a few years ago, the labor movement was at the forefront of efforts to enforce immigration laws, playing a central role, for instance, in the effort to prohibit the employment of illegal aliens. Obviously, such a policy promoted the economic interests of America’s blue-collar workers, but also reflected union members’ intensely patriotic views, which were so apparent in the AFL-CIO’s steady commitment to fight Soviet Communism. But no more. In 2000, the executive committee of the AFL-CIO voted to embrace amnesty for illegal aliens, increased immigration levels, and an end to the ban against employing illegals.
The black establishment has followed the same pattern. Until a generation ago, all important black political figures were critical of mass immigration, including Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey (an immigrant himself), and A. Philip Randolph. Today’s black “leaders,” on the other hand, have embraced their own people’s dispossession. Take affirmative action; whatever its actual merits, the black elite obviously think the policy is important for black advancement. But as immigration has swelled, the non-black groups that had been tacked on to the list of minority beneficiaries, just for show, have come to outnumber blacks. One would think that the black leadership would be fighting to limit affirmative action for immigrants; one would be wrong: As the late Hugh Davis Graham wrote in Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America, the EEOC, chaired by Eleanor Holmes Norton, briefly tried in 1980 to protect black workers from immigrant use of affirmative action, but it failed, and never tried again. Perhaps even more outrageous, Rep. John Lewis and other prominent black politicians gave their blessing to the “freedom rides” staged in 2003 by advocates of amnesty for illegal aliens by equating enforcement of immigration laws to Jim Crow. It’s gotten so bad that Kwesi Mfume, while head of the NAACP, said, “We’re changing because we see America is changing,” and made clear that the group was no longer concerned just about blacks, because “colored people come in all colors.”
This pattern is true even for self-styled defenders of immigrants’ rights. It would seem obvious that the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Council of La Raza speak for the interests of immigrants in the United States, or at least those who belong to The Race. Instead, they too have jettisoned the interests of their supposed constituents when they conflict with continued mass immigration. A milestone came in 1996, when La Raza rejected the suggestion that it trade support for the modest immigration cuts proposed by Barbara Jordan’s bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform in exchange for restrictionist groups’ commitment to fight the sweeping welfare bans against legal immigrants and new retroactive deportation rules then before Congress. Instead of working for such a pro-immigrant policy of lower immigration, these “pro-immigrant” groups dumped the interests of the people they claimed to speak for in order to maintain high levels of immigration in the future. La Raza in 1997 even gave then-Senator Spencer Abraham, architect of congressional libertarians’ anti-immigrant policy of mass immigration, its “Defender of the Melting Pot” award.
Talk is cheap, especially when it comes to immigration control. But the immutable value of open immigration means the Democratic establishment is literally incapable of following through on rhetoric about tightening the border. This is obviously bad for Democrats, given public sentiment. It’s also bad for Republicans, since they face no real competition on the issue. And that’s bad for the republic.
–NRO contributor Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.