Barbara Jordan’s immigration legacy

A process that 'serves the national interest' has been lost

By Jerry Kammer on January 20, 2016

Washington Times, January 13, 2016

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.

In the months following Jordan's death, that coalition came together to defeat legislation that would have advanced the goals she advanced as she declared, "It is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest."

A major Jordan goal was to reduce legal immigration by eliminating the right for citizens and legal immigrants to sponsor the immigration of siblings in an ever-lengthening process that became known as chain immigration. President Clinton endorsed that aim and then backed off under pressure from ethnic advocacy groups and other advocates of expansive immigration policies. The authors of the book, "The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform," observed, "Clinton could not as easily have abandoned the Commission's proposals on legal reform had Jordan survived."

"In the years since then," said commission member Michael Teitelbaum, "the effort to reform immigration policy has deteriorated into increasingly fractious partisan conflict in which politicians and activists and advisers in both parties have increasingly seen that policy as something to serve their own electoral advantage."

In 2013, when the Senate passed a reform bill proposed by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight," its most salient feature was a grow-the-pie strategy that united its left-right coalition by offering more visas to all its members. According to the Congressional Budget Office, their bill by 2030 would have increased the U.S. population by 14.2 million more than was projected under existing immigration policy, which was authorizing about a million green cards every year.

Born in 1936, Barbara Jordan grew up in segregated Houston, the daughter of a preacher. She attended Houston's all-black Texas Southern University, where she became a star debater. 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.
Journalist Molly Ivins, a friend and fellow Texan, described Jordan as "a woman of magisterial dignity" who encountered prejudice and condescension at the legislature. "Jordan overcame all of that by sheer strength of personality, by ability, by her force of intelligence, and, of course, her superb voice, the rhetoric," Ms. Ivins said.

In 1972 Jordan became the first black elected to Congress from Texas since Reconstruction. She soared into the national spotlight on July 25, 1974, with a speech that established her as a moral and political force, and defender of the Constitution and the rule of law. She was a freshman member of Congress serving on the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon because of crimes connected with the Watergate scandal. It was a time of constitutional crisis and grave uncertainty. Jordan's speech, a ringing defense of the Constitution, worked like a healing tonic infused with scholarly precision, somber musical cadence and a patriot's powerful love of country. Jordan's office was flooded with appreciative mail from across the country.

Jordan "believed that Americans had to be united in a common bond of respect for the Constitution, and that no one — not even the president of the United States — was free to flaunt it," wrote her biographer, Mary Beth Rogers. Rogers said the impeachment speech began Jordan's "transformation from a politician to a patriot." Her theme — the law as bulwark against disorder and the guardian of democratic cohesion — would be central to Jordan's work on immigration policy.

Jordan assumed leadership of the commission at a time of growing agitation 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." Ms. Martin said.

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." She also raised this concern: "Unless this country does a better job in curbing illegal immigration, we risk irreparably undermining our commitment to legal immigration."

The prescience of Jordan's concern has become evident during the Republican presidential campaign, where Donald Trump gives angry voice to anxieties about illegal immigration. Meanwhile, the three Democratic contenders compete for the support of their party's liberal base by promising expansive immigration policies, including a welcome to illegal immigrants.