The Unifying Voice We Need in the Immigration Debate

'Where have you gone, Barbara Jordan?'

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 13, 2020

It looks as though Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States come January, but regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, he or she will have to work with Congress to come up with solutions to address the immigration issues facing our nation. What is needed is a unifying voice: Barbara Jordan's.

I have of late cited Jordan — the late civil-rights icon who during the mid-90s was chairwoman of President Clinton's Commission on Immigration Reform — extensively. Why?

She was a liberal, a Democratic member of Congress and "the first African American congresswoman to come from the Deep South" (Texas, to be exact). But she was, first and foremost, an American, with strong faith in our institutions and people, and a clear vision of what immigration meant to this country.

The best proof is her heart-felt opinion piece, published in the New York Times on September 11, 1995, captioned "The Americanization Ideal".

It is a stirring paean to American values, but not saccharine. It is clear-eyed to the bigotry in our history, lauds the contributions of immigrants, expects adherence by them to certain fundamental principles, admits that immigration will change both the alien and our society, and does not shy away from the fact that immigration was then (as it is now) a divisive issue. But Jordan comes down to a core point that bridges that divide: "A well-regulated system of legal immigration is in our national interest."

That line is deceptively both unifying and critical. Unifying, in that only the extreme fringes of the body politic (open-borders advocates on the one side; opponents of any immigration on the other) would disagree. Critical, because it forces those in the middle to compromise. Immigration must be "well-regulated" (that is, enforced), but there will be immigrants, possibly more or fewer than the individual (or party) wants.

She died without seeing her work carried to fruition — one of the great tragedies of our nation's history, up there with the death of Lincoln before Reconstruction — because it left these issues unsettled. The Commission completed its work, but without its champion, its findings were all-but shelved.

Since then, the immigration debate has devolved into rancor (for want of a better word). Any enforcement is "xenophobia" (or worse), and those who promote the enforcement of the law are "racists". Members of Congress demand non-enforcement of the laws Congress actually passed, without seriously offering new ones.

Here is my favorite example of all of the foregoing, from a congressional hearing at which I was invited to testify. I will leave out the member's name (in the off chance I get invited again), and simply call him "Rep. J":

Rep. J: Okay. And your supervisor or your immediate boss at CIS is Mark Krikorian. Correct?

Mr. Arthur: That is correct. He is the executive director.

Rep. J: And he is your boss, correct?

Mr. Arthur: Yes, he is the man who pays me.

Rep. J: And he has stated that, "We have to have security against both the dishwasher and the terrorist because you can't distinguish between the two with regards to immigration control.'' Is that not a racist, homophobic — well, not homophobic, but xenophobic statement?

Mr. Arthur. I believe that Mr. Krikorian's statement actually reflects the immigration laws of the United States.

Lest you think I cut it off there because some zinger followed that showed my response was in error, here was Rep. J's next question: "Let me ask you a question, sir. Are you a racist?" Can you actually picture the staid, erudite Rep. Barbara Jordan asking those questions?

The immigration issues facing our nation are real. Consider border security. As my colleague, Todd Bensman has noted, in its first annual "Threat Assessment", DHS reports it is expecting a massive increase in illegal migration next year. If true, that will lead to a new humanitarian and national security disaster at the border, which could easily dwarf the one that swamped DHS resources in FY 2019.

"Kids in cages" could easily become "kids packed into cages", human trafficking, sex trafficking, or worse — toddlers left by smugglers to die at the border. Read the Final Emergency Interim Report, of the bipartisan CBP Families and Children Care Panel, dated April 16, 2019, and the horrors detailed therein (CNN briefly reported on it, and then the media promptly buried it). This is not the America Jordan knew — but it is the one Jordan's successors allowed it to become.

Jordan explained: "Far more can and should be done to meet the twin goals of border management: deterring illegal crossings while facilitating legal ones. But we have to recognize both goals." What legislative proposals are there to deter border crossings? None of which I am aware.

And since then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano created DACA through a memorandum on June 15, 2012, Congress has been kicking the can down the road on what to do with the 640,000-plus recipients of DACA benefits.

In January 2018, the White House released its "Framework on Immigration Reform & Border Security". In it, the president promised to "[p]rovide legal status for DACA recipients and other DACA-eligible illegal immigrants, adjusting the time-frame to encompass a total population of approximately 1.8 million individuals", in exchange for immigration reforms. It went nowhere.

Biden vows to reinstate DACA, and work with Congress on a larger amnesty for over 11 million aliens illegally present in the United States.

What would Jordan say? Here is what she did say: "If people unauthorized to enter believe that they can remain indefinitely once having reached the interior of the nation, they may be more likely to come." Mass amnesties simply encourage more people to enter illegally, in the hopes that they, too, can stay forever.

As of the end of FY 2019, according to the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) branch, there were 595,430 immigration fugitives — that is "alien[s] who ha[ve] failed to leave the United States based upon a final order of removal, deportation or exclusion, or who ha[ve] failed to report to ICE after receiving notice to do so."

Trump has not been given the resources to remove even a fraction of that number, and Biden has promised to halt removals for his first 100 days in office, and then not to remove any alien who has not committed an (unspecified) felony in the United States (not including DUI). Removal proceedings are pointless if the respondents ordered removed at the end don't leave.

Jordan was clear on this point: "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."

Speaking of removal proceedings, the immigration court backlog stood at 1,262,765 through September before the nation's 520 immigration judges (IJs). That is more than 2,428 cases per IJ. It is no wonder that the average removal case takes 811 days to complete. (That's the average; I recently analyzed a case that has been pending for 16 years, and is far from over.)

Again, that just encourages people to enter illegally, knowing that even if they get caught, removal proceedings can continue for an extended period of time, time they can spend in the United States. Biden vows to double the number of IJs, and I hope he does. I will gladly head back to the Hill to testify in favor of that (and take whatever abuse comes my way) — or work on the legislation to do so (if any member of any committee will have me).

But seriously, what good will more IJs do if there are not more ICE agents to remove the aliens who have received due process, are ordered deported, and fail to leave (as almost 600,000 have)? Immigration court will become kabuki theater — nothing more than (in the words of Britannica) "vehicles for actors to demonstrate their enormous range of skills in visual and vocal performance" (an apt metaphor for Congress of late, as well).

In their 1968 hit, "Mrs. Robinson", Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel wrote: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, A nation turns its lonely eyes to you." (Apparently DiMaggio was none too pleased.) In the coming immigration debate many — Democrats, Republicans, and the voters themselves — may find themselves making the same plea to a woman who grew up poor in Houston, but who knew America better than many who followed her.

Topics: Politics