After a brief disappearance while Republican lawmakers focused on tax reform, immigration policy is back on the table as Congress returns from the Thanksgiving holiday break.
At issue is whether lawmakers will include a legislative amnesty for the recipients of the now-cancelled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in a must-pass spending bill for Fiscal Year 2018.
Some Democrats are insisting that a budget deal include the amnesty provisions of the so-called Dream Act, or they will force a government shutdown. In return for including DACA amnesty in the omnibus bill, Democrats say they will agree to unspecified “border security” enhancements.
For conservative immigration reformers, that’s not nearly enough incentive to agree to a deal that could establish a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants. The emerging consensus among immigration hawks in and out of government is that any DACA bill should be offset by three far-reaching immigration reforms: limits on chain migration, universal use of e-Verify, and the end of the diversity visa lottery.
Critics have called those policies, rolled out in various proposals since President Donald Trump took office in January, by turns “un-American,” and “racist,” and the “product of a white nationalist agenda.” (RELATED: Limiting Immigration: It’s Not Just For ‘Racist’ Republicans)
Heated rhetoric notwithstanding, the ideas were not cooked up by conservative think tanks or nativists in the Republican Party. A version of each one was originally recommended more than 20 years ago by a bipartisan committee chaired by an African-American civil rights hero.
The Jordan Commission
The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform was a congressionally mandated panel tasked with examining and recommending changes to the nation’s immigration laws, especially reforms that would benefit American workers. After Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush in 1992, he installed former Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Jordan as chair, and the panel became known as the Jordan Commission.
A professor at the University of Texas at the time of her appointment, Jordan was well-known as a civil rights leader and had been the first woman to represent Texas in the House. She was also a firm proponent of strict immigration enforcement, advocating policies that would curb illegal immigration and limit the admission of low-skilled legal immigrants.
“As a nation of immigrants committed to the rule of law, this country must set limits on who can enter and back up these limits with effective enforcement of our immigration law,” Jordan told the Senate in 1994.
In a series of reports to Congress, the Jordan Commission proposed a wide range of reforms to address both illegal and legal immigration. The group recommended the implementation of a “computerized registry” to verify employment eligibility and stronger penalties for businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens. It also proposed numerous changes to the legal immigration system, including limiting chain migration to nuclear families, capping annual admissions at 550,000, and doing away with the diversity visa program altogether.
At the time, the Jordan Commission’s proposals were relatively uncontroversial. But as the Democratic party moved to the left on immigration issues, the Clinton administration did not press Congress to take up an immigration reform package that included the recommendations. Republican lawmakers also bowed to pressure from certain business interests that did not want to see mandatory employment verification or cuts to unskilled immigration levels.
Two decades after they were introduced, the Jordan Commission’s ideas were revived this year in an immigration reform bill from conservative GOP Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, as well as a companion proposal introduced by GOP Virginia Rep. Dave Brat.
The difference now is that those ideas have become anathema to nearly all Democrats and a sizable slice of Republicans, according to Tom Broadwater, the president of Americans4Work, a nonpartisan advocacy group that represents minority U.S. workers.
“The politicians on both sides of the aisle have softened their tone,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “And the Democrats should be ashamed, quite frankly, of the purposeful sabotage that they are doing to black American workers by promoting high levels of legal and illegal immigration.”
GOP immigration proposals: everything old is new again
Two Republican bills have been offered that would put many of the Jordan Commission’s recommendations in place.
The RAISE Act — introduced this summer by Cotton and Perdue with White House backing — aims to reduce legal migration by half over a decade. By moving the U.S. to a merit-based system and restricting family reunification to spouses and minor children, it would allow for the admission of about 500,000 legal permanent residents annually, or nearly the same number as recommended by the Jordan Commission. It also kills the diversity visa lottery.
Brat’s bill would essentially do the same things, and it tacks on the mandatory use of e-Verify, an electronic system that checks employment records against a Social Security database to confirm employment eligibility.
When those ideas were first proposed in the 1990s, Republican and Democratic appointees to the Jordan Commission were nearly unanimous in their endorsement, arguing the reforms were necessary to protect vulnerable American workers. Today, Democratic lawmakers and immigration activists have assailed them as antithetical to the American tradition and accused their Republican backers of racial and ethnic bias.
Americans4Work’s Broadwater says those criticisms are disingenuous and motivated by a “political expediency” that comes at the expense of native-born U.S. workers.
“Nothing has changed since the Jordan Commission identified the severe impact that immigration, legal and illegal immigration, was having on American citizen workers,” Broadwater told TheDCNF. “In fact, the situation has gotten worse.”
“The commission’s findings were absolutely on point, and they were sincere,” he added.
Democrats may be leading the charge against the Jordan Commission-inspired reforms, but many leading Republicans have quietly dismissed them as non-starters, as well. GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for example, have balked at the idea of reducing legal immigration levels, despite the fact that the U.S. has averaged a historically high 1.1 million new legal permanent residents per year since 2000.
The fact that the only supporters of the Jordan Commission’s recommendations are today seen as “hawks” or “hard-liners” is indicative of how far both parties have diverged from the commission’s views on immigration.
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