Barbara Jordan, Donald Trump, and Caravans

By Andrew R. Arthur on April 4, 2018

In my April 3, 2018, post, "Caravan Points Out Weakness in U.S. Border Policy", I referenced a "caravan" of more than 1,000 foreign nationals on their way to the United States (a majority of whom are Honduran nationals), apparently to apply for asylum.

It is not entirely clear what the purpose of this caravan is. Some have suggested it's a political stunt, others suggest it's an attempt to find safety in numbers from the predations of smugglers and corrupt police (and other criminals) on the trip through Mexico.

If the purpose of this caravan is political, I am not certain that it will achieve its intended goal, if that goal is to liberalize American immigration policy. Pictures of women and children in immigration detention typically pull at the heartstrings of the citizenry as a whole (and certain demographic groups in particular), inspiring immigration liberalization movements. On the other hand, pictures of a massive number of individuals attempting to force their way into the United States have, in my experience, spurred concerns in at least some part of the populace that the border is out of control, and that more needs to be done to crack down on immigration.

Which brings me to Barbara Jordan. For those of you who are not familiar with her, I would recommend my colleague Jerry Kammer's January 17, 2016, portrait captioned "Remembering Barbara Jordan and Her Immigration Legacy". To borrow a few lines from Kammer:

Born in 1936, Barbara Jordan grew up in segregated Houston, daughter of a preacher who moonlighted as a warehouse clerk. As the Washington Post would report, "her parents pushed her to excel ... and they would criticize her for imprecise diction and any report card that contained a B rather than all A's.

Jordan attended Houston's all-black Texas Southern University, where she became a star debater and graduated magna cum laude. In 1966 she became the first black woman ever elected to the Texas state senate. There she took up the cause of the working poor. She pushed through legislation that gave the state its first minimum-wage law, an accomplishment that the liberal Texas Observer hailed as "a near miracle". In 1972, Jordan became the first African-American elected to Congress from Texas since Reconstruction.


In 1993, [President Bill] Clinton appointed Jordan to chair the Commission on Immigration Reform. She took the place of Cardinal Bernard Law, whose term expired at the end of the [George H.W.] Bush presidency.


Jordan assumed leadership of the commission at a time of growing national alarm about illegal immigration. The mood was especially tense in California, where voters the following year would approve Proposition 187, which sought to deny benefits to persons not authorized to be in the United States.

Jordan was alarmed at the tone of much of the debate. So was the commission's executive director, Susan Martin, now the director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. "The situation had become so heated that I thought it would take someone with her gravitas and credibility to get past the emotion and bring people together with a reasonable solution," Martin said. "She was exactly the right person for that."

Jordan often talked of the need to strike a balance between two immigration policy values. "The Commission decries hostility and discrimination against immigrants as antithetical to the traditions and interests of the country," she said. "At the same time, we disagree with those who would label efforts to control immigration as being inherently anti-immigrant. Rather, it is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest."

Jordan underscored the need for immigration enforcement: "As a nation of immigrants committed to the rule of law, this country must set limits on who can enter and back up those limits with effective enforcement of our immigration law."

Which brings me to Donald Trump. The popularity of the president appears to be a source of confusion to those who do not support him or his policies, and his most vehement detractors are not reluctant to accuse him of the basest of motives, particularly as it pertains to immigration. For example, the New Republic has stated: "The Trump administration's immigration policy is racist, part one million." headlined a piece: "Trump has proposed the most racist immigration policy since the KKK wrote our laws. The Klan wrote its racist views into America's immigration law. Stephen Miller's plans would bring them back."

Casting aspersions on one's political opponents is nothing new, but the venom directed at Donald Trump is unprecedented, at least in my lifetime. The more interesting point, however, is the disdain that many show toward the president's supporters, and their motivations. For example, Vox ran a piece with the headline: "Trump's 'shithole countries' comment exposes the core of Trumpism" and the sub headline: "Trump's racism isn't incidental to his political appeal. It's the core of it." Another Vox article proclaims: "The past year of research has made it very clear: Trump won because of racial resentment." Even the once-rational The Atlantic offered this:

The plain meaning of Trumpism exists in tandem with denials of its implications; supporters and opponents alike understand that the president's policies and rhetoric target religious and ethnic minorities, and behave accordingly. But both supporters and opponents usually stop short of calling these policies racist. It is as if there were a pothole in the middle of the street that every driver studiously avoided, but that most insisted did not exist even as they swerved around it.

That this shared understanding is seldom spoken aloud does not prevent people from acting according to its logic. It is the reason why, when Trump's Muslim ban was first implemented, immigration officials stopped American citizens with Arabic names; why agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol have pursued fathers and mothers outside of schools and churches and deported them, as the administration has insisted that it is prioritizing the deportation of criminals; why Attorney General Jeff Sessions targets drug scofflaws with abandon and has dismantled even cooperative efforts at police accountability; why the president's voting commission has committed itself to policies that will disenfranchise voters of color; why both schoolchildren and adults know to invoke the president's name as a taunt against blacks, Latinos, and Muslims; why white supremacists wear hats that say "Make America great again."

There's no question that the president's immigration policies were a key aspect of his appeal to supporters, and a main reason why he won the election. A headline from FiveThirtyEight says it all: "Trump's Hardline Immigration Stance Got Him To The White House." It states: "In 2016 ... immigration may have been the issue most responsible for Trump's winning the Republican nomination. In every state with a caucus or primary exit poll, he did best among voters who said immigration was their top issue."

What the critics above viewed as racism, I would argue, was actually frustration at an immigration system that was out of control in the prior administration.

The Obama administration certainly did not appear interested in immigration enforcement. A November 20, 2014, memorandum from then-Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson captioned "Policies for the Apprehension, Detention and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants", which prioritized the immigration processing of illegal immigrants (and which excluded many otherwise removable aliens) was either a tacit amnesty or an admission of defeat in enforcing the immigration laws of the United States. Given the fact that, as House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz noted during a committee hearing, DHS reprogrammed $113 million from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) budget in June 2015 "to other DHS components with no role in immigration enforcement", and sought $185 million less in funding in the next budget justification for deportation and transportation, the former is the more likely impetus for that memorandum.

If it was trying to enforce the immigration laws, its efforts were ineffective. Surges of illegal immigrants (including children and families) in 2014 and 2016, as reported by Fox News, painted a picture of a border that was out of control, and an administration that was helpless to control it. And, as my colleague Jessica Vaughan noted in a March 2014 Backgrounder captioned "Catch and Release":

A review of internal ICE metrics for 2013 reveals that hundreds of thousands of deportable aliens who were identified in the interior of the country were released instead of removed under the administration's sweeping "prosecutorial discretion" guidelines. In 2013, ICE reported 722,000 encounters with potentially deportable aliens, most of whom came to their attention after incarceration for a local arrest. Yet ICE officials followed through with immigration charges for only 195,000 of these aliens, only about one-fourth. According to ICE personnel, the vast majority of these releases occurred because of current policies that shield most illegal aliens from enforcement, not because the aliens turned out to have legal status or were qualified to stay in the United States.

It would only be natural for a significant proportion of American citizens to view these events and conclude that the immigration laws were not being enforced, to such an extent that immigration was "out of control". A candidate who promised to reverse these policies and to enforce the law, therefore, would appear to be an attractive alternative to one, like Hillary Clinton, who promised to continue and expand on the Obama administration's policies.

Which returns me to Barbara Jordan. As Kammer related in his Backgrounder:

Jordan made a particularly pointed assertion of the need to stop illegal immigration in 1994 when she said, "Our patience is growing thin toward those attempting to overwhelm the will of the American people by acts that ignore, manipulate, or circumvent our immigration laws. Unless this country does a better job in curbing illegal immigration, we risk irreparably undermining our commitment to legal immigration."

I do not believe that even the most strident supporter of the president believes that this nation should abandon its commitment to legal immigration. That said, however, the patience of the American people that Jordan said was "growing thin" two decades ago is likely stretched to its limits by six years of non-enforcement under the Obama Administration.

Moreover, it is difficult to comprehend the situation in which foreign nationals are "attempting to overwhelm the will of the American people by acts that ignore, manipulate, or circumvent our immigration laws" through the caravan. If the plan is to have a large number of individuals enter illegally across the border, or overwhelm a port of entry, it may stretch the patience of the American people to a breaking point.

I doubt that the organizers of that caravan intended to promote President Trump and his immigration policies. That may well be the end result, however.