In Scott Horsley’s NPR piece Wednesday on President Trump’s new immigration-curtailment proposal, the radio network’s White House reporter demonstrated how the media often offer selective facts that are ultimately misleading.
Horsley called the president’s proposed policy “the most significant shakeup in U.S. immigration policy in more than half a century.” This is true. The president wants to curb the flow of legal immigration while also making permanent a cap on refugees. Essentially, he wants to reverse the immigration trends set in motion by the landmark 1965 immigration legislation, which dramatically altered the makeup of immigration and set in motion big inflow increases.
As Horsley said, the president wants to give immigration priority to people with advanced degrees, a facility with the English language, and prospects for contributing immediately to the common weal rather than pursuing welfare largess. As Trump put it (and as Horsley quoted him), “This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first.”
But Horsley also interviewed William Galston of the Brookings Institution, who suggested that immigration likely was “the single most influential issue in the 2016 presidential election.” That’s because, he said, the issue wasn’t strictly a matter of economic concern among Americans frightened about having their jobs taken away by immigrants willing to work for lower wages. No, said Galston, a former official in the Bill Clinton White House, it was also driven by what he called “cultural anxiety.”
This is a factor that Democrats like to ignore or dismiss. But Galson warns against such thinking. “And if we think that this is simply an economic issue,” he says, “then we’re going to be blindsided over and over again.”
As the Pew Research Center declared in a headline over one of its research papers, “Future immigration will change the face of America by 2065.” As Galston correctly suggests, many Americans aren’t comfortable with the idea of immigration changing the face of America and don’t see why they should accept it just because the nation’s elites seem to want it.
But Horsley left an impression in his radio piece that this transformation of America would be simply a natural progression of America’s immigration history. It was a false impression.
The radio reporter offered a sound bite of a heated press conference exchange between CNN newsman Jim Acosta and Trump adviser Stephen Miller. When Acosta suggested Miller wanted to bring in just Britons and Australians, Miller attacked the suggestion as “one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant and foolish things you’ve ever said.” He added: “The reality is—is that the foreign born population into our country has quadrupled since 1970.”
The rest of Horsley’s report, verbatim:
HORSLEY: That’s true, but as historian Erika Lee of the University of Minnesota points out, 1970 was hardly a typical year.
ERIKA LEE: Some lawmakers consider that a historic norm. It is actually a period that is exceptional in our nation of immigration.
HORSLEY: After a half century of restrictive immigration policies, less than 5 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born in 1970. Today, that figure is closer to 15 percent, about what it was when the Statue of Liberty opened in 1886. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.
Let’s parse this. The impression is that the 1970 figure was aberrational, whereas the current 15 percent figure (actually, 13.7 percent in 2015) is more normal, as suggested by a comparison of 1886’s 15 percent.
The truth is that both figures are aberrational. This percentage figure has fluctuated significantly over the decades, reflecting the political sentiment of the nation. One thing we can say is that, when the percentage gets close to 15 percent (as it did in 1890 and is doing now), the nation tends to get concerned about prospects for smooth assimilation. The result is a curtailment in immigration brought on by new, more restrictive immigration policies. Hence, contrary to Horsley and Professor Lee, what’s happening today reflects this historical pattern.
Even Horsley gave the game away—though inadvertently, it seems—when he said, “After a half century of restrictive immigration policies, less than 5 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born in 1970.” This suggests that, for a significant period of American history, the country was comfortable with significant curtailments on immigration.
But, by going back to the apogee of immigration in America and throwing in the Statue of Liberty to bolster his point, Horsley suggests the 1886 figure was normative. It wasn’t.
Here’s what happened: Immigration reached significant numbers in the latter half of the 19th century, reaching that apogee figure of nearly 15 percent in 1890. That led to growing concern that finally peaked politically in 1921, when a national consensus emerged that restrictions were in order, not only in overall numbers but also in reflecting the prevailing ethnic makeup of the nation. That set in motion a long, steady reduction in the percentage of foreign-born Americans, culminating in the 1970 figure of 5 percent.
But before that ultimate result, and without a clear national understanding of the implications, Congress passed the 1965 legislation designed to upend this tilt toward European immigration and open the doors to more Asians and Africans. One key backer of the bill, Edward Kennedy, said, “It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society.” President Lyndon Johnson said the legislation was “not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives.”
Not true. Not only did it dramatically change the ethnic mix of our society but it also led to a “huge and sustained growth in the number of newcomers,” according to a research organization called the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors curbs on current immigration policy.
So what we see here is a pattern of immigration fluctuation, with Americans favoring significant levels of immigration until the results of those levels raise questions about whether we have reached a point of social and economic disruption. That happened the last time the percentage of foreign-born Americans hit 15 percent, and it’s happening now as we once again reach that percentage figure. The Statue of Liberty has nothing to do with it.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.