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 graduation 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 thereby 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.

Swartz became so accomplished at orchestrating odd-bedfellow alliances on immigration that he started trying to do the same on other issues, though with less success. In the early 1990s, he reached from right to left on the issue of the flat tax, trying to convince liberal ethnic organizations that their members could benefit from tax reform. He made some headway, but the flat tax issue fizzled. Immigration remained his bread-and-butter cause, as well as the one he cared about most deeply.

Swartz formally quit the forum in 1989 but continued to maintain a strong presence as an independent operator. His greatest moment came in 1996, when just about everybody was starting to think that the politics of Washington had turned sharply against immigration supporters. Two politicians in particular, Sen. Simpson and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), sensed an opportunity to curtail both legal and illegal immigration.

Following the Republican victories of 1994, Simpson and Smith took over the immigration subcommittees in their respective chambers. Working together, they crafted a broad legislative package to combat illegal immigration that also would have lowered legal immigration by roughly one-third due to numerical reductions and regulatory restrictions. The pair figured that the unpopularity of illegal immigration and the perceived need to pass a bill–any bill–against it during an election year would encourage lawmakers to vote for the accompanying restrictions on legal immigrants. By the spring of 1996, it looked like Simpson and Smith had the votes to win. The White House signaled its willingness to sign the bill into law.

But Simpson and Smith ultimately failed, thanks to Swartz and his allies, among them Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, an influential conservative with strong grassroots connections and a direct line to the Republican House leadership. The bill's opponents successfully urged Congress to split the legislation in half and deal separately with legal and illegal immigration. This tactical move allowed worried lawmakers to pass an anti-illegal alien bill that included, among other things, an expansion of the Border Patrol. At the same time, it prevented cuts in legal immigration because there was much less political will to tackle that subject.

"We nailed them," boasts Swartz, who worked strenuously to keep his business and ethnic-group coalition together. He convinced each side that neither was served by selling out the other in a deal with Simpson and Smith. Although no clear party lines developed in Congress, most Democrats came out of the debate looking like supporters of legal immigration and most Republicans, fatefully, emerged as apparent detractors.

Pro-immigration forces never have had a stronger lobby in Washington than right now. An increasingly influential and sophisticated coalition of ethnic groups work in sync with a business community that is more supportive of immigration today than it has been at any time since the first part of the century. What's more, the Republican Party, which lately has been the political vehicle for immigration restriction, is eager to make amends with Hispanics who have abandoned the GOP in droves in recent election cycles.

The business link has proved vital. Immigrants typically gain admission to the United States because they have relatives living here or because they have special skills to offer. The ethnic organizations generally favor the former category, while business supports the latter. Whenever the immigration debate heats up, the two sides talk to each other but privately worry they'll be sold out. The National Council of La Raza fears that the National Association of Manufacturers will agree to support restrictions on family immigration in order to preserve or expand business immigration. The converse is true as well. The pro-immigration victories in 1990 and 1996 would not have been possible without support from business groups. Both sides have stuck together, and it's proven to be a mutually beneficial strategy.

One of the newest partners in the pro-immigration alliance is high-tech industry. The story of Silicon Valley's political awakening has been told before: Five or six years ago, computer companies and the federal government seemed content to ignore each other. Today, the Justice Department's antitrust actions against Microsoft and Intel are front-page news around the country. In between, a series of issues has made high-tech companies concern themselves with politics. In 1995, they fought off federal securities legislation. In 1996, they helped defeat California's Proposition 211, which would have made shareholder suits easier to file. Encryption and Internet taxation are perennial concerns.

A key issue for Silicon Valley mirrors the Chamber of Commerce's labor shortage worry: There aren't enough highly skilled workers in the United States to fill all the jobs cutting-edge firms routinely create. According to the chamber, 58 percent of companies face a skilled worker shortage today, compared to 28 percent three years ago. Since 1990, American companies have been allowed to recruit foreign-born brainpower through the H1-B Visa Program, which permits 65,000 talented immigrants to enter the United States annually. In 1997, for the first time, all 65,000 were used before the year was over. This year, they were gone by May 7.

This summer, the Senate had agreed to a bill to raise this limit to 85,000 for the rest of this year, then to 95,000 in 1999, 105,000 in 2000, and 115,000 in 2001 and 2002, before returning to 65,000 in 2003. The Clinton administration threatened a veto in July because of protests from labor unions. A vote may occur in the fall but even if it doesn't, a similar piece of legislation appears inevitable next year. The pro-immigration ethnic groups basically have sat on the sidelines during the debate.

A final factor in the transformation of immigration politics involves the Republican Party's changing attitudes. Although there remains plenty of diversity within the ranks of the GOP, Republicans have shifted from a soft anti-immigrant stance in the early 1990s under the tutelage of Simpson and Smith to a striking reluctance today even to raise the subject. They essentially have returned to the old Reagan approach of praising legal immigrants and criticizing illegal aliens, even though this masks growing opposition to immigration among movement conservatives who didn't feel strongly about it during the 1980s.

The party's troubles began with the 1994 vote on California's Proposition 187, a ballot initiative aimed at denying a range of services, including public education and nonemergency medical care, to illegal aliens. That year, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who has a knack for attaching himself to popular issues, wedded his uncertain re-election to the initiative. The referendum's great popularity–it passed with about 60 percent support–grew out of an understandable irritation at the fact that the federal government forced states and localities to pick up virtually all of the social service costs associated with illegal immigration. Many Californians did not think they should have to pay for expenses like schooling illegal immigrant children when the federal government, which is responsible for keeping illegal aliens out of the country in the first place, wasn't doing its job. In their minds, this was a huge unfunded mandate imposed from afar on California taxpayers.

Supporters of Prop. 187 weren't careful about distinguishing between legal and illegal immigrants–a point many Democrats exploited. One TV ad promoting Wilson's re-election featured a grainy black-and-white image of Mexicans pouring across the border, with the voice-over: "They keep coming." Wilson won in November with 55 percent of the vote, but his victory came with a price: plummeting support for Republicans among Hispanics. Only 23 percent of Latinos cast ballots for Wilson–about the same as his draw among self-described Democrats, according to the Los Angeles Times exit poll.

Other GOPers fared much better among Hispanics in 1994. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, winning office for the first time, captured as much as 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his state. But Wilson seemed the rule, Bush the exception. (This is also one of the reasons Bush is the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000–he's perceived as better able to cut into the Democrats' base of Hispanic support than any other Republican.)

Many Republicans nevertheless believed that adopting Wilson's political themes would serve them well. Wilson, after all, did win re-election. Then came the disastrous Simpson-Smith legislation, which failed to achieve much of anything apart from painting the GOP as unfriendly to the foreign-born. That same summer, the immigration debate popped up again in the context of welfare reform. Congress passed a law that contained provisions denying noncitizens access to food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, and federal cash support for the poor, elderly, and disabled. State governments also were given the authority to limit cash welfare, Medicaid, and other forms of public assistance. Even though many Democrats opposed the bill, President Clinton signed it. At the signing ceremony, however, he promised to repeal many of the sections affecting immigrants. Clinton thereby got credit both for achieving welfare reform and for defending immigrant rights shortly before his re-election. Congress, on the other hand, got credit for welfare reform and also blame for being anti-immigrant.

At the national level, Republicans paid a price for their failed attempt to cut immigration and their successful attempt to deny welfare to noncitizens. Hispanic voters flocked to the Democrats. In 1996, they gave 70 percent of their support to President Clinton, up from 55 percent in 1992. Republican candidate Bob Dole earned only 21 percent Hispanic support–a smaller share than any other GOPer on record. What's more, polling data suggest that the Democrats may have carried 85 percent of Hispanic voters who had just become citizens and that they also made deep inroads among the traditionally GOP-leaning Cubans in Florida.

Ever since, the Republican Party has engaged in a massive damage control operation. Political candidates in California have sprinted away from ballot propositions that allegedly run counter to the interests of the state's Hispanics. In 1998, Attorney General Dan Lungren, who is currently the GOP nominee for governor, publicly opposed Proposition 227, an initiative intending to eliminate bilingual education. (Other prominent California Republicans, such as Wilson and GOP Senate candidate Matt Fong, supported it.) Prop. 227, inspired by Latino immigrant parents in Los Angeles who boycotted a local public elementary school for not teaching their children in English, suggested an electorate more concerned about state-enforced multiculturalism than immigration levels. Polling sponsored by Ron K. Unz, a Republican who bankrolled the initiative, revealed that conservative anxieties about immigration would be substantially relaxed if the government didn't promote racial preference policies or bilingual education programs that refuse to teach kids in English.

Prop. 227 won with 61 percent of the vote in June. Most Latinos opposed it, despite pre-election surveys showing widespread sympathy for the cause. Lungren won only 17 percent of Latino votes in California's June 2 gubernatorial open primary, compared to 43 percent of whites and 39 per-cent of Asians, according to the Los Angeles Times exit

In Congress, Republicans have spent much of the last two years undoing their welfare law as it applies to immigrants. Noncitizens who were living in the United States at the time of the bill's passage are now allowed to retain most of the benefits Congress had stripped. (To Republicans' credit, those who weren't in the country at the time now find it more difficult to receive welfare than immigrants once did.) The upshot is a political disaster for the GOP: It spent an enormous amount of capital passing the restrictions, which are sensible from a public policy perspective. Then it repealed most of what it had done. So Republicans earned an anti-immigrant political tag and two years later do not have much to show for it–except for a bad reputation among Hispanics.

There's a grand tradition in American politics of attempting to win the immigrant vote–even bribing editors of ethnic newspapers not to run ads from opponents, as was done in the 1912 presidential race–but the GOP lately has succumbed to blatant pandering. Last year, Congress increased the annual appropriation earmarked for bilingual education to more than $300 million. Today, House Speaker Newt Gingrich gives serious consideration to the disastrous idea of Puerto Rican statehood, promises to settle the land claims of Mexican Americans who say their ancestors' property rights were violated under provisions of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and regularly issues press releases in Spanish. (These releases, incidentally, often contain amusing grammatical errors. One, celebrating Cinco de Mayo, asserted that the holiday honoring Mexico's defeat of French invaders in 1862 resulted in "the right of the people to personality determination," instead of self-determination. Another referred to Gingrich as "Hablado," which is Spanish for windbag.)

This isn't to say that nobody tries to offend the immigration lobby anymore. Lamar Smith is sponsoring a modest naturalization bill meant to clean up citizenship fraud. Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), reacting to evidence of illegal aliens' voting in 1996, wants voters to show identification before they cast election ballots. This proposal remains a legislative long shot, though it may yet find its way into a campaign finance reform package.

Few pro-immigrant groups, and none of those on the left, like these small-bore proposals. But having defeated recent attempts to cut admission levels, they can hardly complain about where they're sitting. One of their major concerns right now is to block Smith's effort to make elderly citizenship applicants have their fingerprints taken–something they're currently exempt from doing. "Many elderly applicants have arthritis and other conditions which make them time consuming, if not impossible, to fingerprint," complains one backgrounder on the Smith bill. That about sums up the gravitas of the immigration debate today: Should seniors trying to become citizens have their fingers stained with ink?

Big pieces of immigration legislation tend to come along every four to six years: 1980, 1986, 1990, 1996. It's too soon to expect another major package right now, and the first rumblings for one can't be heard anywhere on Capitol Hill. But with the economy humming and a pro-immigration political structure firmly in place in Washington, odds are immigration levels won't fall anytime soon. They may even go up–perhaps by a lot–in the next decade.

The 20th century helped define the United States as a nation of immigrants, even though relatively few came for nearly half of it. If today's patterns continue, the 21st century may find the United States calling itself a nation of permanent immigration. In the opening words to his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 book The Uprooted, Harvard historian Oscar Handlin famously remarked, "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history." At the end of the 20th century, it looks like immigrants also may be the American future.

Contributing Editor John J. Miller (millerjj@aol.com) is a political reporter for National Review and the author of The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined America's Assimilation Ethic (The Free Press).