Losing Control: How a Left-Right Coalition Blocked Immigration Reform and Provoked the Backlash That Elected Trump
The Center for Immigration Studies streamed an Immigration Newsmaker conversation on Wednesday, July 8, at 2 p.m. EDT featuring the author of "Losing Control", Jerry Kammer – a Center fellow and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, lead the discussion, which focused on how Washington’s failure to control illegal immigration provoked the populist backlash that powered Donald Trump to victory in the 2016 presidential election.
Center for Immigration Studies
Senior Research Fellow
Center for Immigration Studies
MARK KRIKORIAN: My name is Mark Krikorian. I am executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. And we’re hosting a discussion today about a new book we’ve published called “Losing Control: How a Left-Right Coalition Blocked Immigration Reform and Provoked the Backlash That Elected Trump.” The book is by CIS Fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner Jerry Kammer.
And to discuss the book with Jerry, we’re pleased to have with us David Frum, who is a senior editor at The Atlantic, author of 10 books of his own, and has written a good deal about the immigration issue as well. And so I wanted to hand it over to you, David, to do your thing with Jerry, and then at the end of the show I’ll come back in. It’s all yours, David.
DAVID FRUM: All right. Mark, thank you for your hospitality. Jerry, hello.
JERRY KAMMER: Hi, Dave.
MR. FRUM: I don’t know how many people watching us today have had the chance to read your book, so we’re going to give them a great tour of it. So it’s a pleasure to talk to you.
MR. KAMMER: A pleasure to be with you, David. Thank you.
MR. FRUM: So let’s start – actually, one of the most interesting things I – for me in your book is the story of your own career that is included in it. No disrespect to think tanks – I spent a lot of my career in think tanks, you’re working at a think tank now – but you’re not fundamentally a think-tank guy.
MR. KAMMER: No. I’m a reporter. I like to go out and get the story and meet the people. I like to do a lot of research. I’ve long liked to do historical and archival research. But really like to do a lot of street-level reporting, and I try to bring that into this book to make it more immediate, more engaging, and to put human faces on all sides of the debate into the story that I was telling.
MR. FRUM: Well, you tell an interesting story about being in a place where there are a lot of immigrant workers, and you ask them where they’re from, and it was a pretty small town, and that you startled them by telling them – and I’ll let you tell the punchline.
MR. KAMMER: Well, that was San Pedro Buenavista in Chiapas, a place that I had visited on vacation – it was either 2003 or 2004 – got to know some people. And when I was up north, back home in Maryland in the corridor between Baltimore and Washington, I started encountering people from San Pedro Buenavista working in fast-food restaurants – McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A – on pretty much of a string up the highway from Olney, Maryland to Towson, Maryland, just north of Baltimore. And they were all from – I would engage them in conversation in Spanish and was really interested to find that they were all from San Pedro Buenavista and they had all come as part of a network that developed over years. That’s the way immigration functions, through networks and through connections that last generations. And I’ve encountered similar, but not quite as extensive situations in other parts of the country.
MR. FRUM: Your method, as I see it in the book, is you start from the individual and work up to general observations. In Washington, as you know, we usually do it the other way around. But you start with the person.
MR. KAMMER: Well, yeah, that’s a journalistic technique. You tell stories of individuals with the intent of showing that they are representative of larger situations and larger phenomena, and I think that if you select your stories fairly and wisely that’s a good technique for explaining the complexities of immigration.
MR. FRUM: So how did you find yourself on the immigration beat?
MR. KAMMER: Well, I can give you the quick version. I – very quick. I started out in reporting with the Navajo Times in Window Rock, Arizona. That led to a job at a daily. The Navajo Times was a weekly. I worked for a small-town daily just off the reservation called the Gallup Independent, ultimately got employed by the Arizona Republic.
MR. FRUM: Approximately when is this?
MR. KAMMER: Pardon me?
MR. FRUM: Approximately what year?
MR. KAMMER: Oh, OK. Well, in 1986 I became the Arizona Republic’s northern Mexico correspondent living in Hermosillo, the capital of the Mexican state of Sonora, which is just south of Arizona. And I moved there one month before Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, signed by President Reagan in November of 1986 and touted as an historic compromise that combined the compassion of an amnesty for people who were living here in illegal status with a firm program to stop future waves of illegal immigration at the worksite by cutting off the jobs magnet and making it illegal for employers to hire people whom they knew to be unauthorized.
Now, the amnesty was delivered. It worked. The worksite enforcement did not. IRCA failed in that regard because it wasn’t allowed to succeed. It wasn’t allowed to succeed by the combination of forces that are the left-right coalition mentioned in the subtitle of the book.
MR. FRUM: I want to get very much to that point, but I just want to situate you at this moment in time, in 1986. So you’re in northern Mexico and you – did you ask for this assignment, or was it given to you?
MR. KAMMER: I jumped at it. I had been working as an adjunct faculty member at the University of New Mexico in the town of Gallup, where I lived for four years while I was – I worked on a book about the Navajos and Hopis and a very interesting land dispute they had over 2.4 million acres of high-desert rangeland. That’s east of the Grand Canyon, but that’s another story.
But once I was in Sonora for the Republic in 1986, immigration was surging. Of course, the immigration debate in Congress was in the news. And I became fascinated by the issue. And even though I moved back to Phoenix in 1990 to be a part of the investigation team – and there I spent four years working on the savings-and-loan predicament of a fellow by the name of Charles Keating, who became the national poster boy for that – but I always in between stories and even on weekends would go down to the border, would talk to friends, and would write occasional stories about immigration. And then, in 2000, I went to Washington for the Arizona Republic to be the Washington correspondent covering all sorts of different stories at various agencies of the government and on the Hill having to do with Arizona.
But I was most interested in immigration. I was just fascinated by it and wanted to write about it intensively. This was about the time that President Bush was beginning to advocate for a comprehensive reform under the banner of compassionate conservatism, and I wanted to pursue it in depth. And so when I got the opportunity to be the national immigration correspondent for the San Diego Union-Tribune and their Copley News Service in 2002, I jumped at the opportunity. And I was there until 2008, when the implosion of the newspaper business model made it impossible for Copley and the Union-Tribune to provide me the budget that they had provided me that allowed me to travel extensively on both sides of the border to cover the story. And that’s –
MR. FRUM: Most people who –
MR. KAMMER: Go ahead.
MR. FRUM: Many of the people who get involved in the immigration debate one way or the other are people who start with a strong ideological system of the left, or the right, that immigration is sort of a subset – it’s a piece within a bigger assembly of beliefs. And my impression of you is that that wasn’t your experience at all; that you don’t seem to be a highly ideological person, and for you the immigration story is kind of an end in itself rather than a part of something – some other, bigger world system.
MR. KAMMER: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I think that an issue with immigration reporting is that today reporters tend to come from the ethnic relations or race relations larger beat. They tend to be interested in those issues. They have an approach that is very compassionate and very concerned about matters of identity and human rights – all admirable concerns, of course, but I think there also should be the old focus of a wonderful immigration reporter in the ’80s and ’90s named Harry Bernstein, who came into immigration from the labor beat. He was concerned particularly about how immigration affected the job prospects and well-being of American workers.
MR. FRUM: Well, this is – this is where we have to introduce an alien concept to some of our younger viewers, that in America there used to be these things called labor unions, and they were very powerful institutions. And a metropolitan newspaper would typically have somebody whose job was to cover the unions. There was a labor beat. And that gradually vanished. I think The New York Times is maybe the last newspaper in America still to have one. I don’t believe they have one now, but where your job was to know the union leadership, to know their concerns – not necessarily to be a spokesman or spokesperson for them, but to see the world – to see the complex of issues that they struggled with, which were issues of pay and working conditions and benefits.
MR. KAMMER: And not only that, David. I think until around the 1980s, journalism – reporters – reporters were frequently guys with blue-collar backgrounds and not more than a high-school education, so they identified with people in the working class. And you know, now immigration reporters, especially for the national media, tend to come – many of them come from Ivy League backgrounds, and it seems to me just about all of them come from a background of the same sensibility of concern about immigration rights, human rights, and the plight of those who are here who are immigrants, especially those who are here in illegal status.
MR. FRUM: Well, let me throw an even more sort of startling, you know, trip down memory lane. My wife’s family is a newspapering family. Her father founded the last profitable daily newspaper to be founded in North America, the Toronto Sun, and he ran it for many years. And in the 1970s – and you’ll remember this – a newspaper building, the vast majority of the people came to work inside a newspaper building every day, had working-class jobs because the newspaper produced a physical object, a newspaper, a thing that had to be printed. Paper had to be brought, ink had to be put on it, the pages to be sliced put in trucks, driven around town. And so most of the people that you had contact with if you worked in a newspaper were people who had those paid benefits/working condition concerns that today, I mean, are – at those entities that still produce a physical edition, the physical edition is usually produced miles – many, many miles away from where the content is produced.
MR. KAMMER: Yeah. And one more thing, if I could add it. A lot of young people today, especially – (laughs) – from elite universities, come from wealthy backgrounds where they have never had a minimum-wage job. Now, back in the stone age when I was coming up, it was commonplace for middle-class families – my father was a doctor, my mom a nurse – but we all had to have summer jobs and all of our friends, even though we went to private Catholic high school and private Catholic university, we were all expected to work. And therefore, we came into – I had jobs – summer jobs in construction, as a janitor, driving a truck, washing trucks, all sorts of jobs – working in a warehouse, all sorts of jobs that put me in daily contact with working-class people who are trying to get by. And I really began to see the world through their eyes, and that certainly influenced the work I’ve done since then.
MR. FRUM: Well, now, let me pull you back to 1986, and I want you to take this into the mental atmosphere. You were there. You were covering it. What was the problem to which the 1986 amnesty – Simpson-Mazzoli, as it sometimes is called; IRCA, as you call it – what was the problem to which it was offered as the answer?
MR. KAMMER: Well, two problems: the human problem of people – unauthorized immigrants living throughout the country in growing numbers, and then the related problems at the other end of the issue was the problem of scofflaw employers whose insatiable appetite for people who were willing to work for less and afraid to complain because they feared being deported if they did complain. There became growing concern about that.
And in the 1970s, actually, a solid Democrat with close ties to the labor unions called Peter Rodino out of New Jersey, he got an employer sanctions bill through the House twice. It went over to the Senate, where it was bottled up by the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, named Eastland, who was from a Southern, cotton-growing Mississippi family that had for decades used Mexican labor, much of it illegal immigrant labor.
And so things were stuck, and the momentum built up at the end of the Carter and beginning of the Reagan administration with the report of a Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy directed by Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame, my alma mater. I got to know Father Hester. We talked about these issues. He believed very much in combining the compassion of a one-time-only amnesty with an employer sanctions program that would for the first time make it illegal knowingly to hire someone who was living without authorization in the United States. Until that time, it had been illegal to come here without authorization, but it had not been illegal to hire such a person. That so-called Texas proviso, which explicitly exempted employers, was a reflection of the political clout of the Texas agricultural industry above all. And then over the years of course, as immigration and illegal immigration expanded, all other sectors – many other sectors of the economy experienced the same fascination for illegal immigration.
MR. FRUM: So Simpson-Mazzoli, which I still am going to call it – I know that’s inexact – the ’86 bill, it sounds like the very epitome of the everybody gives, everybody gets bipartisan process that is supposed to be Washington at its best. That’s the same year as the big tax reform of the Reagan years, which is often regarded as a great success of this kind of way of doing business – everybody gives, everybody gets, work on both sides of the aisle. What went wrong with the ’86 bill? Why – I mean, I don’t think anybody’s happy with the outcome. What went wrong with it?
MR. KAMMER: Well, it went wrong from the beginning. Even before it was passed, the left-right coalition – and I should define that. That extended from the civil liberties groups of the left and ethnic advocacy groups and immigration activist groups, across the spectrum to the business groups and the libertarian groups, civil libertarians on the right, who for various reasons – either economic, political, or ideological – did not believe in regulating immigration. And it also included some Republican interests who pressured their representatives to basically leave the border open to the people they wanted to hire.
But it was a hard-fought compromise. The Reagan administration supported it, at least officially, but – and President Reagan, when he signed it in a special signing ceremony at the White House in 1986, he said future generations of Americans will be grateful for our effort humanely to control immigration. Well, President Reagan –
MR. FRUM: OK. Let me – you went – you went –
MR. KAMMER: – as we all know, was anti-regulation, a small-government guy. He never got behind with budgetary authorities or budgetary help and with the administration of the executive branch to have that law enforced. And he was the first in a succession of presidents who, for various reasons, never fully committed to employer sanctions and worksite enforcement.
Bill Clinton came close when he ran in – became president in 1992 or was elected in 1992, and you know, he talked about feeling the pain of the American people, and was very strongly committed to stopping illegal immigration. He promised a seamless web of enforcement from the border to the worksite and he did some serious things for a while. But after he was reelected in 1996, he backed off under the influence of the immigration lobby.
MR. FRUM: OK. I want to pull you back here because you’re going a little too – I’m going to just keep dragging you back to go a little slower because for those who don’t know the story, there are a lot of details here that it’s easy for – I mean, you, who are so profoundly into it, to say things with understanding that can lose us. When you talk about how this thing was enforced, did the bill go wrong because of the way the bill was written, or what – did the bill have potential to work? And was it this – an administrative rather than a legislative problem?
MR. KAMMER: That’s a key question. Thank you.
The bill broke down over the issue of worker identification and establishing a secure identifying document or process by which employers could establish whether their workers were authorized. And Father Hesburgh wanted to have a computer-based system using the Social Security number that employers could call into to determine whether people that they were hiring could continue in their – in their employ. The left-right coalition fought tooth and nail.
Leading that coalition in the House was Congressman Ed Roybal of Los Angeles, very committed and very determined to stop what he thought would be an inherently discriminatory process by which employers would be afraid to hire anyone who, quote, “looked,” unquote, foreign. And you know, there was certainly reason to have that concern. Father Hesburgh and others said we can address that, we can have failsafe measures to protect those who are immigrants but authorized, but their principal thrust was, of course, to protect the larger American workforce, whether of native-born Americans or authorized immigrants. And that effort failed because the coalition prevented Father Hesburgh’s proposal from being included in the bill as passed. And there have been occasional efforts ever since to repair the bill, but none of them has succeeded.
MR. FRUM: So there was a design flaw in it from the start.
MR. KAMMER: Yes. Yes. It failed because it wasn’t allowed to succeed. You could say it was made to fail as passed by Congress.
MR. FRUM: So engineered to fail. So it’s not just an administrative problem. It’s not just that there weren’t enough resources. It was that there was a piece – there’s a piece of machinery necessary to make this new assembly work, and that machinery was not delivered and integrated into the rest. And that was the data, some way for employers – if you’re going to impose a duty on employers to check, you have to give them some opportunity to check.
MR. KAMMER: That is correct. And Congress, when there were, you know, demonstrations of public concern and anger, especially on behalf of American workers, was more than happy to throw billions of dollars at the border, whether by building up the Border Patrol or other security methods, but it was not – it could not come to agreement on something that we call mandatory E-Verify, which is the electronic-based system, more sophisticated than Father Hesburgh proposed. And President Trump is also much more interested in building the border wall than he is on enforcing against people in the employer class.
MR. FRUM: So let’s now talk about how this thing begins to go wrong. So we have – soon after the bill is signed, we have a bout of economic turbulence. Iraq invades Kuwait. The price of oil spikes. You have the savings-and-loan crisis, which you reported on. That’s an – savings and loan is an example of how when something is handled reasonably competently, people forget what a big deal it was. But the savings-and-loan market – people forget this now, but the original shock – the original losses in savings and loan was big – it was as big as the subprime market was in 2008; it just – it was just hemmed in better.
But we had four or five years of real employment troubles in the United States from about 1990 to 1995. And even though the economy was visibly growing it was called at the time – and Bill Clinton used this issue in 1992 – the jobless recovery. Then things begin to move into a much higher gear in about 1995. The World Wide Web begins to knit itself together in 1996. We have a tremendous housing boom. The Baby Boomers come into their peak earning years. And the economy takes off, and illegal immigration with it. And at that point, the economy begins attracting labor from all over the world, but especially from Mexico and now Central America. And you’ve got this duty on the employers that was put there in 1986, and we have not, as you say, created the means for employers to fulfill their obligations.
MR. KAMMER: That’s right. And about 3 million people received the amnesty as a result of the ’86 legislation, but because of that fatal flaw – that design flaw, as you put it – the illegal immigration not only didn’t stop, it accelerated. Because those who got newly legal status, who got the amnesty, were able to move around the country, and many of them were good workers, and their boss would say, boy, you know any others like you who would like to come work with you? I’d like to hire them. And word would go down with improved communications and eventually the internet to villages and networks across Latin America in particular, but not exclusively. And illegal immigration, according to Pew, grew – actually grew in the aftermath of IRCA at a rate during the 1990s – an annual rate for a decade of 500,000. So there were 5 million more people – unauthorized immigrants in the country at the beginning of – at the end of the decade than there had been at the beginning of the decade four years after IRCA was supposed to cut off the flow.
MR. FRUM: Now, you mentioned the figure of 3 million as the number who got amnesty. But as you point out, that figure came as a surprise to the authors of the law. They did not think the number would be that big.
MR. KAMMER: That’s right.
MR. FRUM: How were they – how were they caught by surprise?
MR. KAMMER: Well, there you get to the question of the numbers being inflated by what even The New York Times called one of the largest frauds ever perpetrated on the federal government. The amnesty legislation had a special provision designed to placate the implacable agricultural industry whereby anybody who had – who was able to establish that he or she had worked for agriculture leading up to the passage of the bill for at least 90 days in a particular year could get a path to legalization. That created a tremendous incentive for people to have documents that said, yes, this person meets that requirement. And up sprung an industry whereby some farmers were selling letters for a thousand dollars saying, yes, this person worked for me for 110 days during the strawberry-picking season of X year. (Laughs.) And this was just act one of a massive document fraud industry that sprang up in the absence of a secure identifier for employer sanctions and worksite enforcement.
MR. FRUM: And if we’d had that database, if we’d had that means of identification, this could have been – this could have been evented (ph). So the design flaw also enabled not just ongoing mistake, but it allowed for this – as you said, this fraud.
Let me jump forward now to about the year – to the – about a decade, to the middle 2000s. So the economy booms through the 1990s, pulls in labor, and the United States is becoming a more globalized economy. We have another economic bump in 2000/2001 from the dot-com bust and the 9/11 attacks. And then we have this gigantic housing bubble and construction boom, which changes the jobs that illegal laborers tended to do.
MR. KAMMER: Well, yes, they – well, they’re throughout the economy. I mean, many of them are wonderful workers, hard workers. They’re dedicated to sending money back to their families. They’re willing to live in crowded quarters, which is part of the reason they’re in special difficulty right now. And employers love them, and many employers claim that Americans have lost the work ethic. But you know, we’ve been hearing that certainly for decades. It was certainly directed at my generation. In some instances, employers use that as a cover because they can’t find Americans who are willing to do the work at the wages they are willing to pay and others are willing to accept.
MR. FRUM: So beginning in about 2005-2007, there’s pressure for a new grand compromise – a new everybody gives, everybody gets, work the same – both sides of the aisle to remedy the problems that were not fixed in 1986. And this project keeps coming to the verge of success and keeps falling apart. And I think 2007, 2008 – I think there’s a last push in 2008; President Obama tries again in his administration; and it’s haunted by this memory of 1986. Is it your sense that policymakers ever and legislatures understood why 1986 seemed like a bad example to so many people?
MR. KAMMER: Well, I don’t think they’ve ever faced up to the failure of IRCA, the very easily identifiable but massively consequential failure to establish a worksite identification process that’s reliable. And it’s amazing, a real testimony to the power of the left-right coalition, that Congress has still been unable to agree upon a fix to make E-Verify, which is now up and working but is voluntary – it needs to be made mandatory the way paying taxes are mandatory. I mean, if we had a similar enforcement mechanism under immigration enforcement that we do with federal taxes, I think we would see compliance at a similar level.
MR. FRUM: Now, you make the point in the book that one reason that these things don’t happen is because there’s no lobby for it, that the harms done by illegality are very diffuse and many of them spread beyond – (audio break) – exactly. I mean, it’s just – it’s just a dangerous thing for a modern bureaucratic state to have within its borders people that it doesn’t know about. And not dangerous just from the spectacular security point of view, but we’re seeing this right now. People – when you have a pandemic and you need to trace people to find out where they are so they don’t make others sick, you need to know who’s there. And if you don’t know who’s living inside your country, I don’t know how you run a contact-tracing system. So the illegality itself becomes a giant problem.
MR. KAMMER: And there’s a massive lobby that facilitates it, that once more – I mean, Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group in D.C., did a study of immigration lobbying records that are mandatory in Washington, and saw that hundreds of lobbyists over a period of a couple years spent or earned – or spent $2 billion to lobby for various provisions in the immigration legislation. And Robert Reich, the former labor secretary, said by contrast there’s nobody lobbying for – he said there’s no Association of the American Working Poor, who are those who are most greatly affected.
MR. FRUM: Well, that quote in your book raises a question that is outside the borders of your book, but that I think is – will be a challenging one and probably a challenging one for many of us who are watching this broadcast who probably do come from the more right of center. It is – we did use to have a lobbying group for the working poor in the United States, and that – it was a very powerful lobby in the period from 1917 to 1973, when inequality in the country lowered and the middle class rose. That lobby group was called labor. And maybe one of the things that you are telling is the obverse side, the opposite side of the story of the decline of organized labor.
MR. KAMMER: Organized labor was one of the most active lobbying powers in favor of the Immigration Act of ’86, wanting the employer sanctions and the worksite enforcement that were promised but never delivered. And they kept up demanding enforcement until gradually they saw that many of the people – that so many people had come in in unauthorized status and gotten employed because they gamed the system, which was easy to be gamed by design, that labor began to see these folks as potential members. And so, in 2000 – and I have a chapter that tells this story – there was a major turnaround when the – where the AFL-CIO, longtime demanding congressional action to enforce, suddenly came out in favor of another massive, almost universal amnesty, so.
MR. FRUM: Right. So that’s where we were in 2005-2007. And the people who were negotiating could never understand why, when they said let’s do 1986 again only this time we do it right, that that didn’t gain a lot of credit with many voters because they remembered this – that promises had been – had been broken before.
I want to ask you about something that you said that – and this is an issue that troubles me greatly. Because, as you said, the solution – the political solution we found to – there is a political demand for more immigration enforcement that comes from the base mostly of the Republican Party, but also some Democrats. And then there’s this targeted opposition to the things necessary to make enforcement a success that comes from the left-right coalition you describe, employers and activists. And the way American society has found to solve this problem is by, as you said just now, hardening the border, militarizing the border, drones and airplanes and now a wall. And that also encourages Americans to look at – to blame Mexico for the immigration problem, and to think of Mexico not as a neighbor and friend and partner but as an enemy, that they are the country that is sending these people to you rather than a country that suffers also from illegality. Because illegality for Mexico means not only the loss of people to the United States, but it means the flow of illegal funds into Mexico that may not be – that come in in ways that are hard to tax, hard to count, and that Mexico gets this external dark-money economy that attacks its state capacity and its ability to tax to pay for the services Mexico needs.
MR. KAMMER: Yeah. I mean, our Congress basically has been so hypocritical about this, with the support of various presidential administrations. They have structured a system that basically says don’t come without authorization, but if you can get past the Border Patrol, eh, you can probably stay and get a job that’ll pay close to minimum wage, and you know, maybe you’ll be all right. Congress has been feckless, has designed a bill to fail against the wishes of a strong cohort in Congress who really sincerely tried to make it work.
But you remember back in the ’90s the populist resentment against this was first galvanized by one Patrick Buchanan with his presidential candidacies. And Donald Trump, when he was running or preparing to run even in 2012, hired a political adviser by the name of Sam Nunberg, who got him – got Trump on to various talk shows like Mark Levin, and they were surprised how many of the calls came from the working-class audience who were really upset about competition from unauthorized immigrant labor. And he – of course, he exploited that. But he recognized – give Trump credit. He recognized a problem that many in the establishment of both parties had caused and refused to fix.
MR. FRUM: That’s absolutely true, he did do that, and I think that played a big part in his success. At the same time – and I thought this was where you were going with mentioning Pat Buchanan – that Trump is – Trump is going to leave behind a new political landscape on immigration because what he did – in the days when the United States was able to control immigration effectively, there was a left-right coalition for enforcement that was – that rested upon the power of organized labor. Today we have an immigration movement that rests upon basically the power of the hyper-ideological right. And you know what? The hyper-ideological right ain’t very powerful. And so what we are seeing is in reaction to the Trump presidency a real just as – and you’ve tracked this; you can see it – a shift toward enforcement in the ’90s, through the ’00s, that we now see a shift away from enforcement because enforcement has been branded as Trumpy.
MR. KAMMER: Exactly. I mean, the reaction to Trump’s coarseness and cruelty and, you know, his clear xenophobic allergy to immigrants, especially from Latin America, that has caused a lot of revulsion among Americans – even as many others are saying, look, he may be harsh, he may say things in ways I don’t approve of, but good lord, he is pointing to problems and trying to solve problems that the others not only allowed to go unsolved but aggravated with their fecklessness. And you know, Trump was going to make that a keynote of his campaign again this year. It may reappear. But now he has found other fields to plow with his, you know, very dark and divisive rhetoric. We saw dark and divisive rhetoric with immigration. Now we’re seeing it in other aspects of our cultural battles.
MR. FRUM: Well, let me ask you if we can learn something positive from the 1986 experience. So you described a bill that was designed to fail. And you’ve sat, and I’m sure I’ve sat – I’m sure you’ve sat – think tanks are all the time convening groups where they try to recreate the everybody gives, everybody gets, work across the aisle spirit that is supposedly Washington at its best. And I’ve been through three or four of these sessions, and they’re always very interesting, and you meet really smart people, but they end up redesigning – I mean, it’s basically always the same thing. The answer is always the same. And what I think was – it’s now called McCain-Kennedy instead of Simpson-Mazzoli. It’s always the same.
But you would teach that the lesson of 1986 is none of this is going to work unless you have that crucial design piece, which is enforcement in the interior resting on information technology.
MR. KAMMER: Yes.
MR. FRUM: Without that, nothing’s going to work.
MR. KAMMER: You must have the logistical capability and you must have the administrative/political leadership committed to delivering, to making that ability stick, and letting the system work as announced but as never delivered.
MR. FRUM: OK. Now, this is a little bit off your beat, but have you given some thought to what the mechanics of that would look like, that crucial piece?
MR. KAMMER: Well, Mark Krikorian at Center for Immigration Studies is an expert in that, in E-Verify, the computer-based electronic verification system. And the technology is available. It’s there. But now it’s – as I said before, it’s voluntary. And as long as it’s voluntary, a lot of employers are going to say, hey, I’m not going to voluntarily give up my access to an unauthorized workforce that can’t take enough hard work and willing to accept very low wages. So Congress supplies –
MR. FRUM: But doesn’t – doesn’t E-Verify rest upon an architecture of the Social Security system?
MR. KAMMER: Yes.
MR. FRUM: And –
MR. KAMMER: That, and other records.
MR. FRUM: Is that – is that going to be stable, to build your authentication system upon a foundation of Social Security?
MR. KAMMER: Well, that is a good question. I think so, but I have not gotten deep into the technological weeds on that one. But various systems have been proposed, and they have all been thwarted on the Hill by the immigration lobby and the left-right coalition. So there’s no question we can do it. We got to have the will to do it, the leadership to do it, and we need a president who says I think we need to combine another amnesty – we need to do what the ’86 Act said it was doing but failed to do: provide amnesty, a generous amnesty, but this time provide the other half of the deal by making it darn near impossible to hire people knowing or in a status where you should know that they are not authorized to work because they cannot present legitimate documents.
MR. FRUM: Now, since ’86, the immigration story has been punctuated by these pauses driven by other events. So we have – we have a pause between ’89-’92 driven by the savings-and-loan crisis and the recession and the jobless recovery. We have another pause at the end – at the end of the ’90s driven by the dot-com bust and 9/11 and tighter security measures. We’ve got a pause in 2008-2009 driven by the global financial crisis. We had a pause or a slowdown in 2017 driven by immigrants or potential immigrants all over the world wondering if Donald Trump was going to act on his words. He didn’t. We then had this huge spike in 2018-2019. But now we have this horrible pause that comes about in the most terrible way because of the global pandemic. But we do see this slowdown of global movement, and there’s kind of an opportunity here. And if there’s a new president in 2021, there’s going to be a call for action.
Post-Trump, I mean, the Democratic Party has moved on immigration in ways where it doesn’t have – it’s all sail and no anchor, doesn’t have any brakes. But when the time comes, when they really decide we need to write a piece of law and not just do executive orders, if you are drawing on the lessons of ’86 and the failures that have followed since ’86 and the populist backlash, what would you say to the people designing such a thing for the next president? How do you get an immigration system that we can live with and that’s going to (advertise ?) and not break down immediately?
MR. KAMMER: I would say – I would repeat something very close to the words of Barbara Jordan, the civil rights icon who in the 1990s, in the Clinton administration, directed the Commission on Immigration Reform, and also insisted – she said it is our national responsibility to manage immigration, legal or illegal, in the national interest. She said we must have limits in order to cohere as a nation and take care of the people to whom we are most obligated, our own citizens and authorized immigrants. And we must be willing to enforce those limits, and she said deportation must have a role in our immigration policy system.
Now, that gets to something – a distinction between something that was brought up by New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who said – talked about the distinction between acceptable cruelty and unacceptable cruelty. Any type of an – you know, cruelty is the – it’s the knowing administration of pain, of consequences. And all enforcement, then, is arguably cruel, but at what point does it become unacceptably cruel? And there’s a real point of demarcation. There are those who say it is unacceptably cruel to deport anyone who manages to get into our country. They may not – they may say they’re not for open borders, but every time someone tries to enforce the borders they try to block it. And I think Congress has to very wisely draw that line, and we must have presidential leadership that says – that says we as a nation must be committed both to recognizing those who are here whom we have allowed through our system to establish themselves here, but in our national interest we must do all we can to cut off the influx of large numbers of illegal immigrants.
MR. FRUM: Well, let me ask you what you think of this hypothesis, and we’re coming to the end of our hour. But this is a thought I’ve been brooding about a lot, as to how this is all going to come to a head quite soon. At one of the Democratic debates – I now forget which – the candidates were asked: Would you favor providing health insurance to illegal aliens? And it sounds like a parody of a question that was asked in a Democratic debate, but every hand went up, yes, including Joe Biden’s. And I mean, again, it sounds like a parody of a bleeding-heart liberal question, but when you think about the problem you see this is going to be a vexed question. We have about 11 million people, maybe a little bit more or maybe a little bit less – CIS is the keeper of the numbers – living illegally in the United States. From what I understand, a majority of them have been here – more than half – for more than 10 years.
MR. KAMMER: Yeah.
MR. FRUM: And the peak period of their arrival was the 1990s, and that was a while ago.
MR. KAMMER: Yeah.
MR. FRUM: I don’t – so they are getting on. They are probably – half the illegal immigrants are probably over 40, maybe getting up there, and at some point – they’re not going home, and at some point they’re going to turn 65. And as we see in this pandemic, they’re exposed to things that may make them – they may not need to wait to 65 to discover real problems with their health. Now, what are we going to do for and about those people? Are we going to let them die in the streets or not going to provide care? So the Democrats on that stage were wrestling with a real problem. But it cannot be that if you say, OK, we’re going to – that the next amnesty, whenever it is, is going to encourage some measure of medical care for people who come here illegally, which costs what – what now, $20,000 for the average family of four is the cost of health-care coverage. You can’t have an open gate when you say and on the other side of the gate not only do you get the right to work a minimum-wage job, as was true in the 1990s, you also get some access to an expanded health-care provision.
MR. KAMMER: Well, you’ve identified the complexity very well. This is a layered set of challenges and of costs. And you know, there are inevitable costs imposed upon the system as a whole by large-scale employment of unauthorized people. It is a system that – once again, like the deregulation of the savings and loans, it’s a system that privatizes profit and socializes loss. The American people are going to be stuck with the bill while there is – there are enormous gains and transfers of income and of wealth from the working class, whose wages are suppressed by large numbers of illegal-immigrant competition, to the employer class. And it expands from there. And certainly, health insurance is a major, major expense that we’ll have to reckon with, as you say.
MR. FRUM: Yeah. I’m speaking to you from Canada, where I’m originally from, which of course has a universal health-care system. And Canada has lower rates of illegal immigration than the United States, partly for reasons of geography but these days that shouldn’t matter since so many people do travel by air. In 2011, the second-highest Canadian court ruled that people illegally present in Canada have no right to health care. And that question is so uncontroversial that I went to look at how Canadians feel about that, are there any polls; no one’s even ever done a poll on the question because it seems so obvious. And yet, when you have a majority of 11 million people aging fast, illegally present in your country, getting sick, now getting COVID, you can’t do nothing.
We’ve got a few minutes left together before the end of our hour, so I want to ask you to do two things. One is hold up a copy of the book so people can see it as an object if you have a copy at hand.
MR. KAMMER: “Losing Control: How a Left-Right Coalition Blocked Immigration Reform and Provoked the Backlash That Elected Trump.” With great art by the amazing Michael Ramirez, an editorial cartoonist who has won two Pulitzers. And his cover is, I think, just really magnificent.
MR. FRUM: And not to put you on the spot, and if your mind is not organized this way don’t answer, but is there – as we close our time, is there a single takeaway that you would like people to take from this conversation, to have in mind when they begin your book? What is – if you could give them one piece of guidance as to how to understand your work, what would it be?
MR. KAMMER: Don’t be fooled by those who brag about all the money they’re throwing at the border unless they’re also willing to take a stand at the worksite. Unless we are committed to that, we will not be able to manage this problem, and it will be another victory of those who don’t want regulation at enormous cost to our country – just as the savings-and-loan disaster and just like the Wall Street disaster of 2008 were disasters inflicted upon us by the corporate class and the donor class, who wanted – who managed to rig the system so that it enriches them and – at enormous cost to our fiscal well-being and our coherence as a society, our ability to cohere and come together.
MR. FRUM: Let me push you a little to be a little more precise on that point. Maybe put it this way: So if you’re a citizen, a voter, and you’re concerned about this issue, and you want to know who’s for real, who’s not for real, what’s the question they should ask a person who seeks their vote?
MR. KAMMER: Do you believe E-Verify should be mandatory? And would you accept that as a precondition for another amnesty?
MR. FRUM: So the test is the verification system at the workplace. And once we get that, then you can control the labor market in the United States, you can control illegality, and then you have the piece that was missing in 1986 that is going to make the classic Washington deal actually work and not fail from the beginning.
MR. KAMMER: Right. Comprehensive immigration reform as proposed basically is a dressed-up version of the ’86 legislation. Well, if you’re going to pass basically the same bill, just be damn sure you don’t make sure that it’s going to fail in the same way for the reasons that you allowed it to fail after the ’86 legislation. Don’t fool us twice. The American people have had enough of these promises and the failure of a policy that I think is one of the most consequential failures in the history of American governance, certainly in the modern history of American governance. It gave us an enormous issue of illegal immigration and it provoked the backlash that elected Donald Trump.
MR. FRUM: I have to say, for me one of the things I always – I always want to hear is I want to hear politicians talk about this issue, talk about Mexico and other countries as partners, because, of course, national – people have to vote on their national-interest basis, but I don’t think Americans think enough about the harm that the massive export of its population has done to Mexico; and not just the export of population but the flow of dark money back into Mexico through remittances, often untaxed by the Mexican authorities. Mexico is a middle-income country.
MR. KAMMER: Yes.
MR. FRUM: And yet, it’s got – GDP per capita, as I understand it, as high as the United States in the early 1950s. We didn’t think we were poor. It’s not a poor place. Or actually, it’s not a poor country but it’s often a poor place. And it’s very poor in services. Its delivery of education is terrible. They need revenue. And one of the most important sources of revenue they get is one that is – that defeats the government’s ability to tax.
MR. KAMMER: Yeah. Well –
MR. FRUM: And if we – when we can begin to think of them as friends and partners, we may be closer to a solution.
MR. KAMMER: And for demographic reasons, migration – immigration from Mexico is slowing. But it’s picking up from other countries. And as long as we have the imbalance between our way of life and those of countries throughout the world, and at a time when transportation and communication are much easier than they were a couple of decades ago, there are going to be increasing influxes from other parts of the world. And –
MR. FRUM: Yes. Yes, no, this is maybe – I wrote a big article for The Atlantic about this, and maybe this is the place to stop, in which I said that one of the ways that – policymakers tend to think of immigration as a waning issue because they think that immigrants move because they’re desperately poor. But desperately poor people cannot move very far. That’s not feasible. Immigration is picking up because the world’s becoming rich. It’s becoming more possible to travel. It’s becoming cheaper. It’s becoming easier to know what’s going on. And it’s just – and I tell the story in my big immigration article for The Atlantic about Bangladesh, which is one of the most successful economies in Asia. But it’s not obviously – it’s much better off than it used to be; it’s not as well off as the United States. And understandably, when people find they have a few thousand dollars to invest on something, finding a way to come to America is a very good investment if you’ve got deployable funds. And more and more people do.
MR. KAMMER: I’d like to close on this point, and it’s one that you have made in print. You know, immigration can be tremendously beneficial to our country, as it has been for many years, but we must manage it. We must regulate it. We must restrict it so that its power to enhance our country is not eclipsed by its power to disrupt. And that requires political leadership, and we haven’t had it.
MR. FRUM: Let’s pause there. Such a pleasure to talk to you. Every success with the book. Thanks for making the time.
MR. KAMMER: Thank you, David, very much. Great respect for your work.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, gentlemen. I appreciate, David, your giving the time to this and giving such a thoughtful interview with Jerry.
The book, again, is “Losing Control.” It’s on the usual places people get books, Amazon and elsewhere. It’s in Kindle and paperback. The video version of this discussion will be online at CIS.org. And I hope people will join us for future events.
Thank you, David. Thank you, Jerry.
MR. KAMMER: Thanks.
MR. FRUM: Thank you. Bye-bye.
MR. KAMMER: Bye.