The Politics of Permanent Immigration

How pro-immigration forces triumphed--and why they're likely to keep doing so.

At a December meeting with Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, a group of trade association executives ran through their legislative priorities for 1998. Tort reform, regulatory relief, and tax credits for research and development topped their agenda--just as they always do. The RNC chief promised that the GOP would do what it could--just as he always does. The gathering could have occurred at any time during the last several years, and its content would not have been very different. It was another typically dull Washington roundtable discussion about how the federal government can help American business.

Right before the meeting ended, however, Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spoke up. "There's one more thing," he said. "If the economy keeps growing the way it has, we're going to run out of people." He predicted a severe labor shortage sometime in the next decade. Suddenly the room jumped to life. Josten's colleagues backed him up. Within five or 10 years, the group thought, there will be many more new jobs than people able to fill them. The country already is nearing full employment: The unemployment rate dropped to 4.3 percent in May, the lowest it's been in 28 years. An ominous demographic problem makes for more trouble: There are 22 million fewer Generation Xers than baby boomers. "Unless we find new ways to increase our productivity, we're going to have to bring in more people simply to maintain the economy's growth rate," said Josten. "I'm talking about more legal immigrants at all skill levels."

It's hard to imagine anyone in Washington speaking these words just two and a half years ago, when it looked like congressional Republicans and President Clinton were close to an election-year deal that would have formally reduced legal immigration for the first time since the 1920s. A consensus had started to emerge among the Washington political establishment to scale back on admissions, primarily for economic reasons but also because of cultural concerns, population worries, and environmentalism. The bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, led by the late liberal heroine Barbara Jordan, supported the cuts and was instrumental in building the political momentum. Democrats such as Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) were looking for a populist cause to use against big business. Conservatives divided deeply and often bitterly on the issue, and it appeared as though much of the movement was ready to jettison Ronald Reagan's legacy of support for newcomers in order to ride a wave started by California's Proposition 187, a successful ballot initiative aimed at discouraging illegal immigration.

Some acted from a deeply held animus toward multiculturalism, which they believed was fueled by immigration, while others simply wanted a winning political issue. Groups long opposed to immigration because it increases population pressures, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, pressed their advantage. In addition to a reduction in numbers, restrictionists appeared on the brink of enacting an array of policies that would have reversed America's history of generous admission levels: income requirements for immigrants trying to gain entry; a ban on the employment of foreign students upon their grad-uation from U.S. colleges; new prevailing wage rules for companies hiring foreign-born workers; and--perhaps most threatening of all from a pro-immigration viewpoint--a provision that would have sunset the current system of admissions
by a certain date and there-by put restrictionists in the political driver's seat. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), an anti-immigration leader, declared: "Business advocates continually give me the babble, `All we want, Simpson, is the best and the brightest.' I say, `Bull! You want the best, brightest, and cheapest, and I for one am going to bust up your playhouse.'"

But Simpson and his friends failed almost entirely, a defeat from which they haven't yet recovered and probably won't for years. Today, the powers that be in Washington are on the verge of actually boosting the number of immigrants entering the United States by 190,000 over five years--an astonishing reversal. More surprises may be in store as the business community starts, however tentatively, to suggest that sustaining America's long economic boom into the next century will require importing more people. The politics of immigration have undergone a stunning sea change. The strong economy has played a key role in this transformation, but perhaps equally important are a series of political developments making it almost unimaginable that immigration levels will suffer even modest reductions in the foreseeable future without a serious economic downturn. The last great wave of immigration, from about 1880 to 1924, brought roughly 25 million people to the United States. The current wave, which picked up steam in the late 1960s, may last much longer than its predecessor.

In analyzing the reasons for this reversal, it's important to start with the realization that immigrants aren't exactly winning popularity contests today. A poll conducted for PBS last summer by Princeton Survey Research Associates found that big majorities of Americans think immigration overburdens the welfare system, causes taxes to rise, hurts job opportunities for the native-born, and fosters racial and ethnic conflict. Oddly, however, more Americans wanted immigration kept at current levels (39 percent) or increased (10 percent) than wanted immigration reduced (36 percent) or stopped altogether (10 percent).

The slight edge in favor of immigration, which falls within the poll's margin of error, may not seem impressive--until you consider where these numbers used to be. In opinion polls taken for more than 50 years, almost always a plurality and often a majority of Americans have wanted immigration levels reduced. In the early 1990s, surveys routinely showed more than 60 percent of the public favoring cuts. Support for lower immigration has dropped 15 to 20 points in just a few years.

The economy explains much of this change. Immigrants' approval ratings, like the scandal-plagued Clinton administration's, benefit from good times. In fact, public desire to reduce immigration always has tracked U.S. economic performance. The loudest calls for cuts in admission tend to come toward the end of recessions, as they did in 1991-92 and 1981-82. Likewise, immigrants get a boost during healthier periods. Today, more people want immigration levels increased or maintained than at any point since 1965, when Congress rewrote immigration law by scrapping the national-origin quota system adopted in the 1920s, created an admissions process based mainly on family reunification, and made the current influx of newcomers possible.

For all the economy has done, however, a series of political events also have played a critical role in reshaping the immigration debate during the last several years. The most important may be one of the least noticed: There is now an effective immigrant lobby in Washington that includes not just groups that support immigration (these always have existed) but also immigrants themselves. At the center of this movement is Rick Swartz, an ex-leftist who is perhaps the foremost pro-immigration political strategist in the country.

Swartz is a rare Washington lobbyist: An activist at heart, he doesn't always follow the money but instead chases down cash to help him finance his own crusades. Immigration always has topped his list of priorities. "It's a quintessentially American issue that cuts across virtually every constituency," says Swartz. "I don't normally quote the Bible, but the Book of Leviticus says it well: `If a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' Those are compelling words."

Swartz, whose red face and bushy eyebrows lend him a subtly villainous look, is probably the figure most disliked by Washington restrictionists. He has almost no public persona; he doesn't debate on Crossfire or write op-eds for The Wall Street Journal. But his influence is felt everywhere. "He's the Moriarity at the center of the web of high immigration lobbying," says Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, who is no fan. "He pretty much runs everything."

Swartz got his start as a hard-left civil rights lawyer in the late 1970s; he gradually evolved into an unclassifiable supporter of economic growth and opportunity. He spent several years working closely with local coalitions of ethnic groups composed of post-1965 immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. He quickly recognized the immigrants' almost complete lack of political clout. "They had no voice on Capitol Hill," he explains. "They were going to get slammed every time unless something changed."

Swartz, a consummate coalition builder, founded the National Immigration Forum. In 1982, he strategically merged with the American Immigration and Citizenship Conference, a much older outfit that was made up primarily of white ethnic groups associated with Ellis Island. This assured that the National Immigration Forum couldn't easily be tagged with the charge of representing only new minority groups looking for special favors. It linked the new immigrants--who provided most of the forum's emerging political muscle--to the older ones and argued simply and powerfully that they were the latest representatives of a long national tradition.

Under Swartz's direction, the forum grew in size and strength during the 1980s. This was a significant development because immigrants historically are a disenfranchised group. Only about one-third of them are actually citizens at any given moment, which means that two-thirds can't exercise political power through the ballot box. What's more, immigrants divided along linguistic, religious, and ethnic lines don't often think of themselves as a distinct class of people. Swartz began to change that by having local ethnic organizations talk to each other and coordinate political activity at the national level. Suddenly, thanks to Swartz, groups such as the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights and the San Francisco Southeast Asian Community Center found themselves having an increasingly unified voice inside the Beltway.

As more immigrants came to the United States--about 15 million have arrived legally since the forum's founding--the influence of the coalition grew. Allied organizations, such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the National Council of La Raza, made similar gains. In 1990, Swartz courted conservatives and business groups for the first time to work with left-wing groups in defeating restrictionist legislation. They succeeded, and this union of political opposites has more or less stayed together under Swartz's leadership.

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