The Year in Immigration, 2000

By Mark Krikorian on January 1, 2001

With record low unemployment and inflation, declines in crime and other social pathologies, and peace abroad, it would appear on the surface that the year 2000 should have seen little concern over the impact of mass immigration on the United States. Supporters of increased immigration and looser enforcement saw these circumstances as ideal for promoting their cause. And, in fact, 2000 was not a banner year from the perspective of crafting sound immigration policies in the national interest. But careful examination of the year's events reveals a more complex picture, featuring deep resistance to the growing level of immigration and a changing intellectual climate willing to challenge the premises of current policy.

As the year began, the seemingly interminable saga of Elian Gonzalez was only a month old, and would continue to dominate immigration news for half the year. Though it seemed that the sympathetic tale of an orphaned escapee from Castro's Cuba might well prompt yet another exception to the immigration law, Americans overwhelmingly supported enforcement of the law and the boy's return to his father. In addition, the episode weakened the Miami Cuban community's control over U.S. policy toward Cuba, including immigration policy. Even The New York Times pointed to the incident as evidence of Miami's virtual secession from the United States as a result of large-scale immigration.

In Congress, the proposed increase in H-1b visas for skilled 'temporary' workers proved more difficult to pass than expected, despite financial support from deep-pocketed technology firms and the lack of active opposition from organized labor. Determined efforts by grassroots groups and Rep. Lamar Smith resulted in eight months of parliamentary maneuvering before the measure was finally passed. Rep. Tom Davis, one of the original sponsors of the legislation, revealed the political dynamics behind the measure when he acknowledged that "This is not a popular bill with the public. It's popular with the CEOs. ... This is a very important issue for the high tech executives who give the money." The "executives who give the money" got their way in the end, with the bill passing in the Senate by a margin of 96-1. But as overwhelming as the final vote appeared, there was substantial dissent under the surface; in the words of Sen. Bob Bennett: "There were, in fact, a whole lot of folks against it, but because they are tapping the high tech community for campaign contributions, they don't want to admit that in public."

Two other measures before Congress had their best chances ever to pass last year, and still failed. Immigrant-rights groups were confident of success for their laundry-list of proposals, including several amnesties for more than 1 million people, especially given high-profile support from Vice President Gore's campaign and President Clinton's threat to shut down the government if the amnesties were not passed. They were bitterly disappointed when stiff Republican resistance and the president's back-pedaling led to the passage of a dramatically smaller bill. And farming interests got as close as they are likely to get to enacting a new Bracero program, gaining passage in a House subcommittee of a plan to import or amnesty up to a million new guestworkers per year. But, like prior proposals, this one in the end could not overcome the objections of Democrats concerned with labor rights and Republicans concerned with law enforcement.

Outside Congress, in one of the most remarkable about-faces on immigration in recent memory, the AFL-CIO in February reversed its traditional position in support of American workers and called for an amnesty for all illegal aliens and an end to the ban on hiring illegals. But this new stance had less impact than the union federation's leadership in Washington might have hoped. It was dismissed contemptuously by Republicans and was greeted with embarrassed evasions by labor's Democratic supporters. Even The New York Times condemned the proposal, saying: "Amnesty would undermine the integrity of the country's immigration laws and would depress the wages of its lowest-paid native-born workers."

In the Midwest, the advocates of mass immigration fared little better. In Iowa, Gov. Tom Vilsack, thinking he was riding the wave of the future, floated a proposal to accelerate population growth by declaring the state an 'Immigration Enterprise Zone' exempted from limits on arrivals from overseas. The plan quietly evaporated in the face of insuperable obstacles: the legal impossibility of state-specific immigration rules; the logical flaw in the assumption that immigrants would want to remain in Iowa while natives leave; and, last but not least, polls showing Iowans overwhelmingly rejecting the idea.

Meanwhile, in Michigan Spencer Abraham, chairman of the Senate immigration subcommittee and the chief Republican immigration booster, was defeated in his re-election bid in part because of his immigration stance. In such a close race (he lost by 67,000 votes out of 4.2 million), almost any issue can be said to have made the difference, but immigration appears to have been crucial. Immigration reform groups began an advertising blitz well before the election campaign alerting voters to Abraham's stance on immigration, forcing him to expend funds and energy responding - thus drawing voters' attention to his views and limiting the resources available in the crucial last weeks of the campaign. In addition, reform groups recruited two candidates to run to Sen Abraham's right, directly drawing off 38,000 votes and reinforcing the conviction among conservative voters that Sen. Abraham is part of the non-patriotic Right.

Though 2000 saw little progress in policy, there was a palpable shift in the intellectual climate toward increased concern about immigration. For instance, as an outgrowth of a conference on immigration and citizenship organized by the Center, The American Enterprise, a magazine published by the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, published an issue devoted to 'Fixing Our Immigration Predicament.' This reconsideration is particularly remarkable since AEI is the home of noted immigration enthusiast Ben Wattenberg. Another sign of the breakup of the prior intellectual consensus was the entry of Harvard's Samuel Huntington into the immigration issue. Huntington, "one of the West's most eminent political scientists" according to Henry Kissinger, weighed in last year with a disturbing examination of the special problems created by mass immigration from Mexico. And newspaper pundits increasingly cast a critical eye on mass immigration, from small local papers up to The Washington Post's Robert Samuelson.

Also prompting second thoughts were last year's Census Bureau population projections for the year 2100. The projection based on 'middle series' assumptions about fertility and migration was for close to 600 million Americans at the end of the century, more than double today's numbers. And the net migration assumed in this projection ranged from 700,000 to more than one million each year for the next century.

The Center's work has helped promote this intellectual shift, and also benefits from it. Our research and analysis making the case for lower immigration and pro-immigrant policies are receiving an increasingly respectful hearing in the media and elsewhere. Last year's examinations of immigrant entrepreneurship and health insurance, for instance, were extensively covered in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, etc. And there are now over 3,700 subscribers to the Center's immigration news e-mail services, including journalists, academics, and government officials.

This changing intellectual climate has not yet made itself felt in politics. Though immigration did not figure prominently in the presidential campaign, George W. Bush made a great show of appealing to immigrant voters by supporting the current high level of immigration. Their overwhelming rejection of him - he got a smaller share of the Hispanic vote than Ronald Reagan and is the first Republican to have lost the Asian vote - is provoking soul-searching by many in his party. It remains to be seen how President Bush will respond to the proposal by his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, to open the border and Fox's description of himself as president of 'all Mexicans,' including American citizens of Mexican origin.

However inefficient from a policy standpoint, it is a fact that the immigration debate ebbs and flows with the economy. Thus if the economy continues its apparent softening, 2001 may well be the year when the changing intellectual consensus on immigration begins to filter into the public discourse.