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Ric Oberlink: Barbara Jordan and Immigration Reform

Implementing the recommendations of her U.S. commission would have helped ward off many of today's problems

The U.S. Postal Service recently issued a stamp to honor Barbara Jordan, offering us an appropriate moment to reflect upon the life of this remarkable woman and her contributions toward resolving a complex and contentious issue that continues to resonate.

In December 1993, I was participating in a roundtable of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in Los Angeles when, during a lunch break, a perceptible buzz circulated among attendees — President Bill Clinton had named the former Texas congresswoman as chairwoman of the commission. I was excited at the prospect that the appointment of this esteemed civil rights advocate would draw appropriate attention to this important issue, but, as one who believes that population growth and the immigration that drives it place inordinate strains on our environment and infrastructure, I was concerned that she would fall into the maelstrom of liberal clichés offered by her base of supporters. As environmentalist Edward Abbey said about immigration, “The conservatives love their cheap labor; the liberals love their cheap cause.”

Instead, Jordan and the commission members undertook a thorough, comprehensive examination of American policies on legal and illegal immigration. Over five years, the commission held 13 consultations and 15 roundtables with experts and scholars; commissioned 18 research papers; held eight public hearings across the nation; and conducted seven site visits.

The culmination was a series of forthright recommendations commensurate with the problem. Rejecting amnesty proposals, Jordan testified to Congress, “Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave.”

Reflecting upon the impact of immigration on America’s working poor, a problem that is particularly worrisome during this long recession, the Jordan commission stated, “Immigrants with relatively low education and skills may compete for jobs and public services with the most vulnerable of Americans, particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed.” Ultimately, the commission concluded not only that the United States must enforce its laws against illegal immigration, but also that it should reduce legal immigration by one-third.

President Clinton embraced the proposal to cut immigration. His press secretary announced that “the president indicated to Barbara Jordan today that he will support such reductions.” Clinton then confined the commission’s report to a shelf where it continues to gather dust.

Even more astonishing, when viewed from today’s highly polarized political world, was the bipartisan agreement on the commission. After more than five years of exhaustive study of this highly controversial policy matter, the five Democratic and four Republican appointees were unanimous in virtually all of their major policy recommendations.

Immigration policy will remain contentious for the foreseeable future, and there is always room for debate about what is the appropriate level of immigration. However, had Clinton and Congress, and subsequent presidents and Congresses, taken steps to implement the commission’s recommendations, we would have resolved many of the immigration problems we now face. States would not feel compelled to pass laws to assist in immigration enforcement if the federal government had not abrogated its duties.

President Barack Obama and many others claim they support “comprehensive” immigration reform. They should review, as a starting point, the prodigious work done by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, the most extensive examination ever taken of American immigration policy.

Jordan told Congress, “It is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest.” The “national interest.” Now there is a subject on which today’s politicians could use a refresher course.

— Ric Oberlink is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization.

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