Immigration Reform in the New Congress

By on December 1, 1996

pp. 11-14 in Immigration Review no. 27, Fall/Winter, 1996-97

A number of politicians, most political pundits and the mainstream media all have announced that the momentum for immigration reform has passed and that the issue is dead — at least for the next year or two. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in mid-January: "I don't see much prospects of more action in that area, at least not this year." Conservative commentators Paul Gigot and Linda Chavez agree. They believe that legal immigration reform has been put on indefinite hold. And newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times echo that analysis.

A recent New York Times article, "Effort to Reduce Legal Immigration Loses Impetus in Congress," set out three reasons for this "turn-about": 1) Republicans lost ground with Hispanic and Asian voters in the 1996 elections; 2) Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-MI), an ardent supporter of mass immigration, is replacing retiring Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) as the chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee (see box on p. 2 for more on Abraham); and 3) "the enactment of the [illegal] immigration bill and the welfare bill...seems to have spent, at least for the present, the public anger against immigrants...."

The first of these reasons is based largely on the unseating of Rep. Robert Dornan by Loretta Sanchez Brixey in Orange County, California. Chavez and Gigot, among others, both cited this race as proof (though they provided no evidence) of an Hispanic backlash against "anti-immigration Republicans." Actually, Rep. Dornan was a proponent of current legal immigration levels. In the words of National Review editor John O'Sullivan, he is a "strong supporter of the Wall Street Journal's pro-immigration line." And then there are the charges of massive voter fraud in that race — charges for which there appears to be significant evidence. The Fair Elections Group, a non-profit research organization in Southern California, has identified over 12,000 duplicate voter registrations in the Dornan/Sanchez district. These results do not take into account potential voting by noncitizens, which could add significantly to the total impact of voter fraud.

In fact, results from the 1996 election do not indicate a significant anti-Republican backlash among Hispanic voters. Bob Dole won the Hispanic vote in Florida, although President Clinton won the state as a whole. David Simcox, in an article in the Spring 1997 issue of The Social Contract, examines actual Hispanic voting patterns from the 1996 election — something Chavez, Gigot and others appear not to have done before drawing their conclusions — and finds little evidence that support for legal immigration reform affected candidates negatively. Simcox's analysis reveals that, of the 39 Congressman who were original cosponsors of legal immigration reform, only North Carolina Republican Fred Heineman lost in the general election — in a district with a negligible Hispanic vote. Immigration simply is not a decisive issue for most voters. A post-election poll of 1,200 U.S. voters found that "fewer than one percent based their vote on the candidates' immigration position," according to the January 1997 issue of Rural Migration News, edited by Dr. Philip Martin of the University of California at Davis.

It is also important to note that many Hispanics and Asians who labelled Republicans "anti-immigrant" did so because of the cuts in immigrant eligibility for welfare, not because of proposals to reduce immigration. Sen. Spencer Abraham was a main supporter of those cuts; in fact, he has appropriated the Cato Institute's slogan: "Immigration yes, welfare no." Most experts see the obvious fallacy in that argument: welfare usage (and poverty in general) can be expected to increase when the unskilled labor market is continuously flooded with infusions of mostly unskilled workers. Thus, Sen. Abraham's position not only hurts unskilled native-born workers seeking employment at livable wages, but it also hurts the unskilled immigrants, who now have no welfare safety net (see the articles on p. 4 and p. 8).

And that brings us to the second reason set out by the New York Times. There is no question that Sen. Abraham's appointment to chair the Senate Immigration Subcommittee presents a serious obstacle to meaningful legal immigration reform. Abraham himself, however, demonstrated last year that a subcommittee chairman does not necessarily control the agenda. Moreover, Senate rules permit non-germane amendments to be attached to any piece  ¼ of legislation being considered on the floor. In other words, any Senator could propose legal immigration reform as an amendment to an unrelated bill. It also remains to be seen whether Abraham's Michigan constituents will tolerate his protection of high-tech industry, and thus mass immigration, over their own interests.

The third reason for the "turn-about" is simply untrue. The American people have demonstrated in poll after poll that they understand the difference between legal and illegal immigration, and that they want illegal immigration stopped and legal immigration reduced. They also have made quite clear that they are not angry at individual immigrants, but rather at the excessive levels of legal immigration permitted by current law and at the impact of these numbers on jobs, schools, housing, public infrastructure, and so on. As legal immigration levels continue to increase — which they are expected to do, according to projections by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) — the problems associated with adding more people to already over-burdened systems will increase, as will the pressure for reform.

The good news is that not all members of Congress agree that immigration reform is dead. Numerous immigration-related bills already have been introduced, including:

  • an immigration moratorium (H.R. 347, introduced by Rep. Stump and cosponsored by Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-AL) - see Immigration Review, No. 24, p. 4 for details on this moratorium, which is the same as the one Rep. Stump introduced in the 104th Congress);
  • a bill to ensure that H-1B temporary workers do not displace American workers (H.R. 119, introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) - see article p.11 for more on the temporary worker issue);
  • two bills to limit birthright citizenship to children of citizens and legal residents (H.R. 7, introduced by Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA) with 25 cosponsors, and H.R.
  • 346, introduced by Rep. Bob Stump (R-AZ)); and
  • a proposal for a secure Social Security card to prevent illegal aliens from gaining employment through the use of fraudulent documents (H.R. 231, introduced by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-FL)).

So, while the political playing field certainly has changed, immigration reform is far from dead. As the impacts of mass immigration continue to grow, and as they spread from the half-dozen traditional "high-impact" states into middle America, the calls for reductions in legal immigration are likely to increase and come from more diverse quarters. Political leaders who believe they can postpone reform indefinitely will only ensure that, when it does come, it will be more severe than if dealt with in a reasonable and responsible way now.

Topics: Politics