In Honor of David North

By Jerry Kammer on June 11, 2024
David North

[A lightly edited version of remarks delivered at a recent memorial service for David North.]

When Mark Krikorian invited me to talk today, he said that would be appropriate because, like David, I identified as a liberal restrictionist. He noted that David was one of the last liberal immigration scholars who were willing to engage the issue critically.

David became a liberal restrictionist decades ago, back when most Democrats favored careful government control – otherwise known as restrictions – of immigration, primarily because of their belief that working men and women needed to be protected from immigration expansionist views of employers who wanted loose labor markets, which put downward pressure on wages.

David was the quintessential liberal restrictionist. For decades he researched and wrote and testified to congressional committees with a scholarly rigor and journalistic skepticism befitting a Princeton graduate who had also been a Fulbright scholar and then a newspaper reporter. His work also showed the moxie and toughness that in 1958 made him the Democratic challenger for the congressional seat occupied by a member of the dynastic Frelinghuysen family, which was a New Jersey version of the Kennedys of Massachusetts and the Byrds of Virginia and had been sending its sons to Congress since the earliest days of our country.

In an interview you can find on the CIS website David said this:

I’m a lifelong liberal Democrat, New Deal Democrat maybe, as a kid. I am concerned about the working man. I am concerned about the people who are powerless in our society, and I worry that immigration policy is tilted against the powerless, tilted against the working man, tilted in favor of the people who already have lots of advantages, and tilted toward the corporations. And therefore, I am a liberal restrictionist, which is my term for people who are worried from my point of view about too much immigration.

That was David’s style: crisp, concise, concerned, committed. 

David had some distinguished contemporaries who shared his fundamental concerns for the need to restrict immigration. One of them was John Higham, the Johns Hopkins University historian, who was known as the dean of immigration scholars. Higham wrote that, “in the modern world free immigration would result in excessive population displacement toward countries with high wages or political stability.” He was critical of immigration expansionists who, he said, “tended to gloss over the dilemmas that immigration posed.”

Another of David’s contemporaries was Harry Bernstein, the longtime labor reporter for the Los Angeles Times whose ultimate position as a columnist allowed him the room to become a feisty critic of employers and activists who pushed Congress to abolish the employer sanctions adopted in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Bernstein wrote that “one of the dumbest things Congress could do would be to tell employers that it’s OK to hire those underpaid, easily abused illegals to compete with workers here.” Bernstein’s advocacy for the working class was emblematic of the time when coverage of immigration was often part of the labor beat, which has since gone the way of the dodo bird, as immigration tends to be considered the domain of the beats that cover diversity or minority affairs.

Another prominent figure who shared David’s concerns was the historian and journalist Michael Lind. In 1995 – the year before the death of Barbara Jordan marked the high-water mark of the liberal restrictionist drive for effective employer sections – Lind wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he lamented that among liberals “any suggestion that the arrival of almost a million legal immigrants a year has any effect on job opportunities and wages in the United States is said to be sinister racist ‘scapegoating.’”

That op-ed, which appeared under the headline “Liberals Duck Immigration Debate”, provoked the ire of Times ultra-liberal publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. who, as Mr. Lind later learned, chastised the op-ed editor who had thought it appropriate to print Lind’s views in the Times.

Mr. Sulzberger thus revealed himself to be an illiberal immigration expansionist. He preferred editors and reporters whose sensibilities were close to a social worker’s warm-hearted compassion and far from hard-headed realpolitik of the Michael Linds, Harry Bernsteins, and David Norths.

On the news side, Sulzberger preferred reporters like Nina Bernstein, who was as admirably eloquent on the plight of migrants as she was exasperatingly indifferent to the consequences of mass immigration on workers and their communities. Mickey Kaus would write that Bernstein was “the most tendentious and biased reporter at the paper”. In his 1987 book, The End of Equality, Kaus wrote powerfully on the estrangement between working-class Americans and affluent professionals who had what Kaus called “a smug contempt for the demographically inferior.” Early in the millennium Sulzberger’s choice to be the editorial page’s lead editorial writer on immigration was the endlessly smug Lawrence Downes, who declared that Americans have a “duty to welcome immigrants," regardless of their legal status. David North thought such thinking was not only smug, but also reckless and irresponsible.

I’ll conclude with a quick look at one of David’s immigration policy targets, the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which has been around since the George HW bush administration. It has drawn the enthusiastic support of business lobbies and publications like Forbes, which reported that OPT “allows international students in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields to work three years after graduation.”

Now David, with his stubborn bias in favor of journalistic accuracy and his old-school distaste for deception, took offense at the double-speak of that description. He pointed out that those who have graduated from a university are graduates, not students. Moreover, he observed, the OPT program was larded with a series of payroll tax exemptions that are incentives for employers not to hire American workers but to hire foreign workers instead. Said David, “I find that appalling”.

Nowadays liberal restrictionists who dare to dissent from the open-borders advocacy of the illiberal left risk being smeared as white nationalists, and therefore as nativists, which means they are racists and bigots and xenophobes. The result is a Democratic party is now controlled primarily by that illiberal left, which has cowed the Biden administration, putting us in the electoral predicament in which we now find ourselves. For more than 50 years, David North, with remarkable intelligence and integrity, made the case for our leaders to enact a reasonable, well-informed, liberal restrictionist immigration policy. He tried to help us avoid the populist upheaval that we now face. I would like to thank Ruth, his wife, and David’s family for sharing David with us.