I’ve followed the politics and reality of immigration for a long time. In the mid-1980s, I traveled around the country for several months on a big reporting project for The Atlantic about that era’s new migrants. I went and learned about the Haitians and Cubans of South Florida, the Vietnamese of Arkansas and the Gulf Coast, the Central Americans of Houston, the Hmong of Fresno, the Mexicans of the greater Southwest, the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans of greater New York, the Lebanese of Detroit—and the native-born members of the communities they were changing.
What I found and argued then was that the process of short-term disruption and longer-term adaptation through which the U.S. opened itself to immigration still prevailed.
That is, immigration has always been disruptive, from the time of the Germans and Irish in the mid-1800s to the groups I was seeing a century-plus later, or their counterparts today. And periodically this disruption has led to political and legal responses that looked bad (and racially driven) in retrospect, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s to the nativist restrictions that essentially shut down most immigration for almost a generation after World War I.
Before that war, the U.S. was open to a surge of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Greeks, Italians, and Poles; Russians and Serbs; Swedes and Danes; Jews, Turks, and Arabs; all these plus others arrived, in addition to the ongoing flow of English, Irish, and Germans. All of my wife’s forebears in America came as children from Bohemia in this turn-of-the-century wave; so did one of my grandmothers, from Germany. “Race-decline” theories gained enormous intellectual and political traction in response, through popular books like The Passing of the Great Race and articles in this very magazine during its nativist phase a century ago. The race-war arguments were an important part of the “national origins” immigration system that prevailed from the 1920s through the early 1960s, with a strong preference for immigrants from Western Europe and tight limits on those from anywhere else.
But—I argued 30 years ago in The Atlantic, and have come to believe more strongly over the years—the United States differed from most other societies in its greater absorptive ability, and the resulting imperfectly open society enjoyed powerful economic, cultural, creative, diplomatic, actuarial, and simple human benefits from becoming a nation-of-nations.
So that’s my starting point. E pluribus unum is a real thing, and it is the fundamental American advantage.
Now we have an American president fobbing off onto his attorney general the task of announcing an end to the DACA program. Some 800,000 people who have mainly grown up in the United States may ultimately face expulsion. One of those 800,000 is a well-liked, well-educated, and widely respected young municipal official in Dodge City, Kansas, named Ernestor de la Rosa. I wrote about him last year. The idea of forcing him out of the country where he has grown up, thrived, and made an important mark will seem crazy in retrospect and is just plain cruel now.
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But you’d expect me to say that. I’ll try to separate my opinion that this is a needless and destructive decision from my observation of how it fits in the flow of U.S. handling of such issues. To take the players and issues in order:
In a way, he is the most honorable participant in this entire spectacle. The decision he announced is in total, consistent harmony with his long career in public life (which of course includes being rejected by a Republican-controlled Senate for a federal judgeship in the 1980s because of allegations of racial bias). He announced the DACA decision in language that was either consciously crafted or instinctively chosen to appeal to an anti-immigrant (and anti-Obama) base. Sessions went out of his way to call DACA entrants like Ernestor de la Rosa “illegal immigrants” who were here because of an “unconstitutional” overreach by Obama. On the merits of the “unconstitutional” claim, please check out this rebuttal by Ian Millhiser. Still, there’s no doubt that Sessions believes what he is saying and considers this a good day for him, his people, and the causes to which he has devoted his life.
I won’t call him the least honorable participant, since there’s such competition for that title. But in leaving this announcement to the same attorney general he was trying to ridicule into quitting only six weeks ago, a man who usually prefers center stage was acting out of character, to say the least. Was he suddenly camera-shy because he had so often promised not to do what Sessions just announced? Was he edging toward what we’ve come to know as the “Jared and Ivanka hand-wring” posture, in which he wants it known that he is “troubled” by the very step that his administration is about to take?
Or was Trump unclear (as the latest New York Times account suggests) about what this new policy would actually mean? We can’t know the reason. But try as he might to wring his hands, or wash them of this policy, he’s stuck with the results.
The U.S. Congress
In principle, the Congress is the venue in which all the complex tradeoffs involving immigration might be worked out. And they are genuinely complex. To name just two: recognizing that immigration creates both winners and losers among native-born and newcomers alike, and doing what’s possible to minimize the harm; and providing “humane” treatment for people who arrived under DACA, without increasing incentives for further unauthorized flows.
Back in the 1980s, a bipartisan group in Congress juggled these and other complications—and came up with a reasonable compromise solution known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. Republican Senator Alan Simpson, of Wyoming, and Democratic Representative Romano Mazzoli, of Kentucky, spent most of a full two-year congressional term working out the provisions, guided by findings of a bipartisan national commission on immigration reform. The Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate both approved the plan, and Ronald Reagan signed the resulting Immigration Reform and Control Act into law in 1986.
In principle, Congress could and should work through the complexities yet again. That’s the idea of a representative legislature. And again in principle, coming up with solutions should be much easier now than it was the last time around, since Congress and the White House are all under one party’s control.
That’s the principle. We’re about to see illustrations of the feckless reality of our current national governing structure.
The Republican Party
Hard-edged “We won, you lost, get over it!” statements like Sessions’s today are satisfying for true believers in the short run. But they often create resistance and reaction that makes them backfire longer term.
When listening to Sessions’s announcement, I could not help thinking of Pete Wilson, then governor of my home state of California, exulting over the passage of the state’s famous Proposition 187 in 1994. Wilson, a Republican, had tied his own reelection campaign to passage of Prop 187, which included a number of tough crackdowns on illegal immigrants. It passed; Wilson beat Kathleen Brown—Pat Brown’s daughter, Jerry’s sister—and stayed in office; “We won, you lost, get over it.” But then, as all chronicles of California politics attest, the “getting over it” involved not simply federal courts staying and eventually throwing out Prop 187 (as improper state interference with federal immigration law) but also the near extinction of the Republican Party as a force in current multi-ethnic California. In the nation’s most populous state, Republicans hold no statewide offices at all; make up less than one-third of both the state assembly and the state senate; and hold just over one-quarter of the state’s 53 Congressional seats (14 Republicans, 39 Democrats). And this is under a non-gerrymandered, “fair” districting plan.
Nothing quite that dramatic seems possible for the country as a whole. The ethnic balances are different (the U.S. remains majority-white, while in California Latinos and “non-Hispanic whites” are each about 40 percent of the population). The power-balance architecture of the Senate and the Electoral College is different, giving rural, mainly whiter areas a larger role in national government. For better and worse, the country won’t look like California any time soon.
But the spectacle of an exultant Jeff Sessions, celebrating the prospect of deporting hundreds of thousands of people like Ernestor de la Rosa, is one his party will (I believe) look back on and regret.
It’s one the country should regret right now.