Politics & Policy

Vox Misfires on Its History of Immigration Reform

Crossing the Mexican border, 1994. (Reuters)

The knives are out for one of the few true legislative reforms of the disastrous mass-immigration system imposed on the American people five decades ago. Representative Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and a member of the Progressive Caucus, has introduced a congressional resolution condemning the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), a 1996 law that created sorely needed immigration-enforcement measures at the border and in the interior. The timing of the resolution’s introduction coincided with the creation of the “#fix96” campaign, as well as a giant push in the press denouncing the act’s legacy.

The biggest broadside came from Vox, the liberal website whose editor, Ezra Klein, is so committed to an open-borders policy he’s even been criticized by Bernie Sanders for his naiveté. Despite being nearly 4,000-words long, the piece, by Dara Lind, leaves out more than enough facts to earn it the label of revisionist propaganda rather than proper journalism. To begin with, Lind’s perspective is skewed: The only sources she contacted about the complicated law’s history were the George Soros–funded Migration Policy Institute (MPI) and a longtime open-borders professor at NYU.

The focus of Lind’s report is the “deportation machine” that the ’96 act supposedly created. Although the law was signed by Bill Clinton, Lind pins the “blame” for it on mean-spirited Republicans — a conclusion only reachable through historical ignorance.

Any accurate historical treatment of IIRIRA requires coverage of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which Lind fails to include. Chaired by former Democratic congresswoman and civil-rights icon Barbara Jordan, the blue-ribbon panel was formed in 1990 to study the problems of our then-as-now broken immigration system. Jordan demanded that illegal and legal immigration levels be dramatically reduced. Though her recommendations were ultimately watered down in the final bill, she forcefully advocated an immigration system that would “serve the national interest.”

Unlike most Democrats today, Jordan understood the consequences of having an immigration system that lacks proper deterrence. Her first report in 1994 opened with the monumentally sensible statement, “The credibility of immigration policy can be measured by a simple yardstick: People who should get in, do get in; people who should not get in are kept out; and people who are judged deportable are required to leave.” Among other things, IIRIRA adopted the immigration-reform commission’s recommendations to dramatically expand the U.S. Border Patrol, improve border-security technology (such as sensors and infrared scopes), improve data exchange between agencies, and build miles of border fencing — all things Lind criticizes the “GOP’s legislation” for supporting, not the Democratic-led commission that shaped it.

#share#Central to Lind’s piece is the curious but oft-repeated assertion that “more immigration enforcement is one big reason why there are so many unauthorized immigrants in the US today.” The theory here is that more illegal aliens opt to settle permanently in the U.S. when they’re less able to make trips back and forth across the border.

The supposed consequence of the 1996 law, writes Lind, is that in the ten years after its passage, the illegal-alien population “exploded” in comparison with the previous decade. But Lind doesn’t account for the large reduction in the illegal-alien population that was the result of the 1986 immigration amnesty. According to the Congressional Research Service, the rise in the illegal-alien population between ’88 and ’96 was actually higher in percentage terms than in the decade following IIRIRA’s passage. But hey, never let accuracy get in the way of your agenda.

Properly enforced employer sanctions were never put into practice after the ’86 amnesty.

As the Jordan Commission explained, the illegal population increased after the congressional amnesty for the same reason it always does: Our immigration system still lacked credibility. Congress’s promise of sanctions on employers who hired illegal aliens was the central compromise offered to amnesty skeptics at the time (as it was in the 2007 Kennedy-McCain amnesty bill and again with Schumer-Rubio in 2013). In fact, along with welfare benefits and birthright citizenship, the average American wage — which is currently ten times that of Mexico’s — is the principal magnet for illegal immigration.

But properly enforced employer sanctions were never put into practice after the ’86 amnesty. They also didn’t happen in 1996, despite Jordan’s recommendation that they be implemented. And it was because of that, not the act’s “too tough” enforcement measures, that the illegal population continued to explode.

#related#The Vox article, however, does manage to illuminate — though not in the way Lind had intended. By explaining what IIRIRA did do to toughen our immigration laws, the piece inadvertently argues against President Obama’s twin executive amnesties. Quoting former Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) commissioner and current Migration Policy Institute director Doris Meissner, Lind notes that the discretion to deport was taken away from the executive branch “almost entirely.” This, of course, goes directly against the Obama administration’s claims that it can grant deportation relief and work permits to whomever it wants through its inherent powers of “prosecutorial discretion.” (The Immigration Reform Law Institute, where I work, has filed two briefs in support of Texas’s challenge to the president’s executive-amnesty program.)

1996 was indeed an important year in immigration reform, but not for the fanciful reasons outlined by Vox. That year marked the last time the Democratic party put the interests of the nation before immigration politics. Lost on Lind and other young progressives is that the Democrats would later shift their stance on immigration policy solely to expand their electoral base, much as the U.K.’s Labour party did in the early ’90s. Unfortunately, Barbara Jordan and other Democrats who were once determined to put country before party are now being written out of history.

Ian SmithIan Smith is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and a contributing blogger with immigration enforcement advocate, the Immigration Reform Law Institute.


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