Barbara Jordan’s Prescription for Fixing Immigration — and Our National Despair

Wisdom from an 18-year-old op-ed that could have been written yesterday

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 8, 2024

The national media is full of pictures of a country pulling itself apart: campus protestors clashing with police; the addicted camped on street corners; and of course, migrants pouring over an insecure border. It’s little wonder Americans see a future full of dread and despair. Fortunately, one woman offered the country she loved a prescription for what ails it today — except she wrote that script more than 18 years ago, in a New York Times op-ed headlined “The Americanization Ideal”. It’s high time we took her counsel to heart.

Barbara Jordan. That column was penned by Barbara Jordan, civil-rights leader, former congresswoman (and first African-American woman elected to Congress from the South), and at the time chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform — a position to which she had been appointed by President Bill Clinton.

If you’re unfamiliar with Jordan, I commend to you a profile of her written by my colleague Jerry Kammer that appeared in the Washington Times in January 2016. Kammer’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, and his skills and respect for his subject put to shame any similar effort I could attempt.

That said, I will borrow (read: steal) from the intro to that profile:

Twenty years have passed since the death of Barbara Jordan. On Jan. 17, 1996, the former congresswoman and civil rights icon succumbed to complications of leukemia. She was 59 years old, a beloved national figure who for the previous two years had been chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.

Jordan’s death cut short that final public service. It represented the high-water mark of bipartisan efforts to stop illegal immigration and reduce legal immigration by asserting a vision of the national interest over the left-right coalition of ethnic, business, political and church groups that seek more immigration and less enforcement.

Charles De Gaulle famously said, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men”, but some men (and women) are indispensable. We can’t know whether our country would be in its current immigration fix had Jordan not succumbed on the precipice of completing her work, but I can guarantee that things would have been different, and likely a whole lot better.

The More Things Change ... Op-eds have word limits, and I assume the Times imposed one on Jordan in “The Americanization Ideal”. That meant that she had to pack a lot into the 567 ones she chose.

She began with five sentences that literally could have been written yesterday:

Congress is considering legislation to curb illegal immigration and set priorities for legal admissions. Several Presidential candidates have made immigration a keystone of their campaigns. Newspapers carry immigration-related articles almost daily, in contrast to just a few years ago when hardly any appeared.

This attention is not misplaced. Reform is needed in policies that permit the continued entry of hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens and blur distinctions between what is legal and beneficial and what is illegal and harmful.

“Legislation to curb illegal immigration”? Check. Presidential candidates focusing on immigration? Check and check. “Immigration-related articles almost daily”? That one doesn’t even need a citation. All the while, poll after poll reveals American voters are clamoring for reforms to “policies that permit the continued entry of hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens”.

As for “blurring distinctions between what is legal and beneficial and what is illegal and harmful”, such obfuscations are not only inadvertent impacts of the administration’s immigration policies, but the intent of White House schemes to release illegal migrants while funneling tens of thousands of “inadmissible” aliens into the country each month, as I have explained in the past.

Jordan likely would not have approved, given that as she explained to Congress in 1995:

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. ... The top priorities for detention and removal, of course, are criminal aliens. But for the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process.

If she were to voice such opinions today, she’d be branded an “extremist” (or worse). But the American people want a credible immigration system, and the majority are demanding the same exact sort of responses Jordan advised.

“A Commitment to Democratic Ideals and Constitutional Principles”. All that said, “The Americanization Ideal” was actually hopeful about immigration, verging at points on a love letter to the Republic: “The United States has united immigrants and their descendants around a commitment to democratic ideals and constitutional principles. People from an extraordinary range of ethnic and religious backgrounds have embraced these ideals.”

As passe as such quaint concepts as “people being kept out” and deportations are 18 years in retrospect, the same — regrettably — appears to be true of any “commitment to democratic ideals and constitutional principles” circa 2024.

What democratic ideals and constitutional principles do Americans still cling to? When “prosecutorial discretion” — a key tenet of our Anglo-American system of justice — can now be used to either turn a blind eye to scofflaws or attack our political enemies, it no longer has any meaning.

“One person, one vote”? What does that mean when we fight constantly over when and where we’re allowed to vote, and who gets to tabulate the results? Worse, in many precincts, citizenship is not even a prerequisite for voting. Do the French ambassador and the Bulgarian head of the International Monetary Fund get to pick the D.C. city council, too?

How can we assimilate newcomers to our ideals and principles when our own children don’t learn what those vague concepts are, let alone what they entail?

Fifteen years ago, the then-president admitted, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” — which suggests that exceptionalism is subjective and, to a degree, jingoistic.

His continued remarks did pay tribute to “the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe”, but few remember that part.

Which is likely why the deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department had to issue a tweet like this one on May 7:

The Prescription. Fortunately, Jordan offered a remedy in her Times op-ed, in a paragraph that is frequently overlooked:

Immigration imposes mutual obligations. Those who choose to come here must embrace the common core of American civic culture. We must assist them in learning our common language: American English. We must renew civic education in the teaching of American history for all Americans. ... We must remind ourselves, as we illustrate for newcomers, what makes us America. [Emphasis added.]

Speaking of Pulitzers, perhaps we could start implementing this plan with the journalism folks at Columbia University’s Pulitzer Hall.

By the way, when I stated that this paragraph was “frequently overlooked”, I mean by me, who’s read this op-ed and cited it numerous times. Jordan’s point, however, is pellucid: Educating ourselves and our progeny about what makes the United States exceptional — and exceptionally blest — is a sine qua non for assimilating the “newcomers” who have joined us.

“Integration”, Not “Assimilation”. Instead of Pulitzer Hall, however, perhaps it’s better to start in the West Wing, or DHS headquarters, or wherever the president’s immigration and border policies are crafted: One of the first acts undertaken by the current administration was to bar certain words from the official parlance, and one of those words was “assimilation”, replaced instead by “integration”.

At the time, I analyzed the two (admittedly similar) terms and noted that whereas assimilation places obligations on the erstwhile newcomer to adjust, integration puts that burden on the preexisting group.

“Assimilation” remains the more apt term, as Jordan makes clear that while both have a duty to the other, the adjustment expected of the newcomer is greater because “embracing the common core of American civic culture” is a change of essence, whereas “reminding ourselves what makes us America” is a constant recommitment to that essence.

To call America “exceptional” isn’t the same as saying we’re better than everybody else and always will be. But we’ve been able to “unite immigrants and their descendants around a commitment to democratic ideals and constitutional principles”, and that’s no mean feat. Renewing that trend requires a commitment from newcomers — and from us — to recommit to what makes us America.