Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Getting Immigration Right

How conservatives blocked the open-borders establishment

In summer 1991, beginning a long air trip on a National Review Institute delegation to the Far East, I opened a 14,000-word submission to National Review and settled down to read. My mood was a good deal more optimistic than it usually was toward 14,000-word submissions. Its author was a friend and gifted writer, Peter Brimelow, then a senior editor at Forbes, who had long wanted to write this piece. But was the topic “hot” enough to command as much as 20 pages in a national magazine?

I was soon blown away by one of the most powerful and lively polemics I have ever read. It was comprehensive, too, covering almost every aspect of immigration and its effects in crisp and well-documented sections.

My traveling companions included Bill and Priscilla Buckley. Bill had given me full editorial control of NR at this point, but you don’t devote a magazine’s entire article section to one piece without informing the proprietor. I gave him the manuscript and told him my intentions. He raised a skeptical eyebrow, but proceeded to read.

An hour later Bill walked over, full of enthusiasm for the piece. Priscilla confirmed our judgment. Peter’s magnum opus appeared as “Time to Re-Think Immigration” behind a cover of the Statue of Liberty raising her hand not to lift a torch aloft but to forbid entry.

As xenophobes later explained it, Peter Brimelow, an English immigrant, and National Review, a magazine then edited by an English immigrant, had launched the modern American debate on immigration. But then, as the former occasionally quipped, aren’t immigrants supposed to do the dirty jobs that Americans won’t?

In fact, this particular immigrant had needed converting. For almost three years, I had argued that immigration was the wrong issue on which to hang the wider cause of protecting America’s national identity against bilingualism, multiculturalism, and postmodern deconstruction (the so-called “National Question”). Just before the 1988 election, I had been astonished at a conservative conference in California when a long burst of applause unexpectedly greeted my mild criticism of the slowly developing spread of biculturalism. Knowing the damage that biculturalism had done to Canada—and sensing from the audience reaction that they were anxious on the same score—I judged that language would be the best horse from that stable. “Official English” enjoyed an 80/20 advantage in opinion polls, it had won the few referenda that the political class had been unable to prevent, and it had none of the “Ellis Island” drawbacks attending the immigration issue—few Americans resented their immigrant grandparents’ having to learn English.

But I changed my mind under two influences.

First, I realized that unchecked immigration was fuelling the support for bilingualism and multiculturalism. Not usually directly, as most immigrants intended to learn English and become Americans. Initially, it was Americans who were mainly responsible for cultural balkanization—elite Americans because they believed in a multicultural America and enforced its strictures in both public and private sectors and ordinary Americans because, being tolerant people, they thought it was only reasonable to make the newcomers, once here, feel at home. Immigration made multiculturalism seem reasonable. And the larger the immigrant intake, the more such reforms as bilingual education seemed simply necessary. As well as making these developments seem reasonable, unchecked immigration ensured that a steady supply of new and probably loyal recruits for the new politics of multiculturalism would keep coming.

Even establishment Republicans, who didn’t notice much, noticed this. By the early 1990s, the GOP was backing away from its earlier sympathy for official English and even from its longer opposition to racial preferences. State parties and governors now began to oppose referenda that would go on to overturn preferences or bilingual education by large majorities. They were responding to what they saw as the political market of the future.

My second reason for second thoughts was economic. Both Brimelow and, through him, George Borjas, a respected economist specializing in immigration (and a Cuban immigrant himself), had drawn my attention to the economic effects of immigration. Its impact on native-born Americans as a whole was modest, and it actually imposed serious economic costs on the low-paid. So there was a strong case against unchecked immigration on both cultural and economic grounds. I gradually swung round to regarding immigration as the primary “National Question” and read Brimelow’s article from that sympathetic standpoint.

The piece created a mini-sensation in the world of intellectual conservatism. But it was largely a favorable one. Even those conservatives who dissented from its restrictionist conclusions, such as historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, conceded that it had mounted a powerful case. It made waves outside conservatism, too. Random House—a mainstream publisher but one then headed by another English immigrant, Harry Evans, a journalist to his fingertips who preferred controversy to pieties—commissioned a book based on it. But reviews for the book on publication in 1995 were far harsher than reactions to the article. There were exceptions: Nathan Glazer, for instance, from a neoconservative standpoint, recognized generously that Alien Nation was a strong and original contribution to immigration literature. In general, however, neoconservatives, libertarians, and establishment Republicans were hostile; liberals were poisonous; conservatives were divided.

What caused this change was that conservative immigration reform had become a political possibility. In retrospect, the years from 1995 to 1997 were the false dawn of immigration reform. Such episodes are natural in the evolution of political controversy. A new issue crystallizing popular discontents emerges. For a while it sweeps all before it. Then its opponents rally and block its advance. But if the sentiments it musters are deep-seated, it re-emerges. Goldwater and Nixon were in very different ways false dawns of the Reagan revolution; ditto Edward Heath and Thatcherism in Britain. With a serious political conflict now in the offing, even conservative supporters of the immigration status quo took off the gloves. Things went as follows:

1. On April 19, 1995, Alien Nation was published and Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. That was the kind of timing all authors fear. McVeigh sucked up all available political publicity for several weeks, and, understandably enough, halted the book’s rise on the bestseller lists. McVeigh also had a more damaging effect on the immigration debate: he became the poster boy for a dark vision of America in which the villains were not any kind of aliens but “Us.” To be concerned about immigration, especially to write of an alien nation, suddenly seemed sinister to the media. But …

2. In June 1995, the bipartisan Jordan Commission, appointed by Congress and headed by the respected former congresswoman Barbara Jordan, issued one of its several reports recommending reforms of the U.S. immigration system, including a reduction in legal numbers by about one-third (to 550,000 legal visas annually), changes in provisions for “family re-unification” to prevent chain migration, improved border security, employer sanctions, and easier procedures for deportation. (The year before, in the November 1994 elections, not only had Gov. Pete Wilson won a hotly contested re-election in California on a program that included calls for better control of immigration, but also Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants from using non-emergency public services, had passed with a comfortable majority.) The wind was behind the sails of immigration reform. Jordan was warmly received when she outlined her committee’s proposals to Congress. And …

3. On June 8, 1995, President Clinton announced that the Jordan proposals were “consistent with my own views” and a “road map for the Congress to consider.” Since Congress had become Republican the previous year and the House was even then pushing through a “conservative revolution,” passing a satisfactory immigration bill should have been a no-brainer. Alas …

4. In January 1996, Barbara Jordan succumbed to cancer. Her death removed a strong and respected voice for immigration reform—and one hard to accuse of racism. Next …

5. Clinton who had been proclaiming his fidelity to the Jordan proposals as late as February 1996, suddenly reversed course. In March, the administration told Congress that it opposed changes in legal immigration, especially the proposed reduction in family members allowed to join relatives in America. Why? According to a 1997 article in the Boston Globe, Democratic National Committee vice chairman and fundraiser John Huang urged Clinton to reverse his endorsement of the Jordan Commission proposal to disallow automatic entry for adult siblings of U.S. citizens. Many Asian immigrants sponsor their adult brothers and sisters once they become citizens. And Clinton was at that time hoovering up campaign contributions from Asians, Asian-Americans, and—a novel touch—even Asian intelligence agencies. Furthermore…

6. In congressional debate throughout 1996, the immigration-reform bill was stripped of its major provisions by a coalition of the White House, the majority of Democrats, and a minority of Republicans. (Sound familiar?) And with the 1996 campaign in full swing, the Clinton administration’s interest in it switched to the question of how many immigrants could vote. All of them, decided Al Gore, who placed his people in the Citizenship USA program to ensure a massive citizen enrollment. An estimated 18,000 criminals were duly granted citizenship in time to vote. Gore’s intervention eventually became a scandal, but only after the election had changed many things. Among them…

7. In January 1997, Sen. Spencer Abraham—a leader of those Republican senators who favored more or less open immigration—replaced moderate restrictionist Alan Simpson as the chair of the Senate immigration subcommittee. In February, he visited Silicon Valley to reassure the assembled whiz kids that there would be no further restrictions on legal immigration on his watch. Suddenly, however …

8. In summer 1997, there was a brief rallying of reformers when the National Academy of Sciences released a report on immigration that confirmed all the main economic conclusions of Borjas and Brimelow. No great economic gains were claimed for it, and large fiscal costs were cited. This was such a defeat for the immiphiliacs that the New York Times was compelled to report it under the misleading headline: “ACADEMY’S REPORT SAYS IMMIGRATION BENEFITS THE U.S.—no huge costs are cited.” Yet even though the report was an important victory for immigration reformers, undermining the intellectual self-satisfaction of their opponents, it came too late. Other matters were gripping the political imagination in the Age of Clinton. And on Aug. 22, 1997, in his “Potomac Watch” column in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Gigot assessed the final result with complacent assurance: “… the crusade by a few columnists and British expatriates to turn the GOP into an anti-immigrant party seems to have failed. Immigrant-bashing has proven to be lousy American politics. When even California conservatives admit this, the debate should be over.”

Gigot was expressing what was by then the bipartisan elite orthodoxy on immigration. Whereas the various elites that make up the establishment had been divided about immigration—and so open to argument and debate—as late as 1995, they had coalesced around strong support for it by the middle of 1997. A number of social trends, some of which are evident in the above list of events—the need of some corporations and Republican donors for cheap labor, the need of Democrats for cheap votes, the need of labor unions for new recruits, the need of churches and charities for new cases, the need of the media for new narratives of American bigotry, and the continued advance of “victimhood” and “diversity” as concepts explaining American history and society—came together and hardened into a new orthodoxy. It remained the bipartisan elite orthodoxy for the next—well, until last month.

But this was an orthodoxy with weak foundations. It represented the political interests of Democrats much more faithfully than those of Republicans, even if the latter were slow to realize the fact. It ran counter to the instincts of the voters, even if they, too, were slow to realize the fact. And it was chock full of discrepancies, contradictions, fallacies, and simple errors. Consider some of its articles of faith:

Immigrants are necessary to service our growing economy and especially to bail out the Social Security system. Japan enjoyed one of the highest economic growth rates in the world for 35 years with no immigration whatsoever. Since the existence of a thing is absolute proof of its possibility (as Bertrand Russell once pointed out), this demonstrates that a growing economy is possible without immigration. The trick is achieved by a combination of investment and innovation. Current immigration policy—with its emphasis on bringing in unskilled workers and relatives of recent immigrants—discourages both. It distorts as much as it feeds the economy. It ensures that America is a more unskilled and less automated economy, and a more stratified society, than would be the case with lower levels and different types of immigration. As for Social Security, that argument is a Ponzi scheme and, like all such schemes, would require an ever-expanding arrival of new contributors. After a few generations, this ingenious fiscal policy would run out of human immigrants and the U.S. would have to import aliens from outer space to continue financing its vast entitlement programs now accommodating most of the world.

It is essential to legalize illegals and to liberalize legal immigration to win over the growing Hispanic vote. This began a series of arguments addressed to nervous Republicans. It was easily demolished. Since Hispanics currently vote Democrat by roughly a two-to-one margin, admitting more Hispanic immigrants to residence and citizenship would add millions more votes overall to the Democrat column. Hispanics already here favor less restrictive immigration only marginally more than other Americans, and those Hispanics who lean Republican tend to favor more restrictive immigration. Republicans, though, were determined to look on the bright side.

Remember how Gov. Pete Wilson destroyed the Californian GOP by opposing immigration. This argument—to which Gigot refers—is a brilliant device to transform a weakness of the orthodoxy into its strongest point. The weakness in question is that the electoral decline of the California GOP can be plainly traced to demographic change driven by immigration. It is therefore a warning of how unchecked immigration could make the national GOP a minority party. What the Gigot argument does is redirect responsibility for the party’s decline to Wilson’s successful 1994 re-election campaign in which he campaigned for better federal control of immigration. Unfortunately for this claim, Wilson came from behind to win a near-landslide victory in part on this issue. (Proposition 187 also passed handsomely.) It was subsequent Republican candidates who lost heavily—but they had quietly disavowed Wilson and avoided immigration as an issue. To blame Wilson for their defeats is to indulge in magical thinking. That many Republicans did just that testifies to the power of orthodoxy in politics.

Despite its difficulties, George W. Bush embraced this orthodoxy both as a candidate and as president. Indeed, he was more open and went further than most Republicans. For instance, he made it clear that he admired the enterprise of most illegal immigrants and would try to help their families join them in the United States. Most Americans paid little attention to these declarations since other issues were more prominent. Democrats agreed with the president, and the media covered them both favorably and on the inside pages, if at all. In other words, the elite orthodoxy had the effect of ensuring that immigration, illegal and legal, never became a political issue from 1997 to about 2006. Bush’s two elections seemed to confirm it.

Why did this apparent national consensus break down so spectacularly in 2006 and 2007? There are three explanations. Not surprisingly, the elite explanation is the least plausible: namely, that our system is broken. If our system had been less partisan, the argument goes, it would have passed a necessary measure that most Americans wanted. This is the opposite of the truth. In reality, a bipartisan elite tried to force a measure that most Americans opposed into law but were defeated by senators who heeded strong and widespread protests. In sum: our system worked.

The second explanation, advanced by Brimelow, is that ordinary Americans—in particular, grassroots Republicans—have been staging more and more rebellions against the elite consensus: the near-defeat of Utah Republican immiphiliac Chris Cannon in a primary; the clear victory of immigration reformer Brian Bilbray over a pro-immigration Democrat in the hard environment of Duke Cunningham’s former district; the astounding defeat of Republican football hero Tom Osborne for the Nebraska governorship solely over his support for in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants; the replacement of the mayor and five councilors in Herndon, Virginia by rebels running against their sponsorship of an official day-laborer site for illegals; the calls by state GOP conventions in Washington and Texas (yes, Texas!) for the removal of automatic citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants; etc., etc.

These rebellions have alerted Republicans in Congress to both the risks of ignoring popular sentiments and the potential rewards of listening to the voters. Hence, in the debates of 2006 and 2007, two-thirds or more of the Republicans in the Senate and a larger percentage of House members rejected the so-called bipartisan bills. Even before Congress showed its hand, the wider conservative intellectual community had been gradually shifting away from elite orthodoxy. In the most recent debate, a list of conservative intellectuals who opposed it on principle included Thomas Sowell, Roger Kimball, and Robert Bork.

They, too, had been liberated—in part by the insurgencies Brimelow lists, in part by the most distinguished intellectual rebellion on these issues in recent years. This was Samuel Huntington’s book, Who Are We? exploring the deconstruction of American identity by bilingualism, multiculturalism, and mass immigration. There was an attempt by various academic and multicultural bully-boys to crush Huntington and his thesis with the usual slurs of racism and nativism. But this failed when a list of undeniably distinguished scholars rode gallantly (since some disagreed with him) to his defense. Following that, the topics raised by Huntington became respectable and common fare for such outlets as City Journal and even The Weekly Standard. [A personal note may be in order here: I do not include National Review in this company since the magazine has been strongly in favor of conservative immigration reform since 1992. Contrary to some mythology on this topic, I remain on the magazine’s masthead, I write regularly for it (on immigration among other topics), and I am perfectly content with how it has handled immigration since 1997. In particular, both the magazine and the website played an indispensable role in the defeat of the 2006 and 2007 immigration bills.]

Brimelow’s thesis of a spreading popular rebellion is accordingly an important part of the truth. But does it account for the scale of the defeat suffered by Bush and the bipartisan establishment? Surely we might still be living under a national consensus for doing nothing about immigration if some third factor had not intervened? So what is the X-factor?

According to Steve Sailer’s explanation, George W. Bush is the X-factor. He brought about the collapse of the elite consensus on immigration because he insisted on repeatedly raising the subject. Suppose he had simply kept quiet. Simply ignoring illegal immigration inter alia would have enabled Republican donors to continue getting cheap labor while denying Democrats the prospect of cheap votes. Most presidents, especially if they were embroiled in a war crisis, would have acted on that cynical logic. But Bush believes that he has both a moral duty and good economic reasons to reform immigration along the “comprehensive” lines of the proposed bill. And by getting together with the Democrats on two occasions to pass such a bill, he maximized the rebellion of Middle America against both it and him.

Most conservative voters were reluctant to believe that a president they liked could possibly support a policy they detested. His expressions of support for legalizing illegals initially confused them. But the more he embraced amnesty, the more he persuaded supporters he was serious, and the more they abandoned him. Bush’s ratings fall in lockstep with his advocacy of liberal immigration reform with almost uncanny timing. Republicans could now look at the actual bill more critically.

That was dangerous. Because the Bush-Kennedy bill was written largely by Democrats and immigration lawyers, it was riddled with items that Republicans disliked. So it was not difficult for researchers, such as Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, to show that granting 12 or more million low-paid people the right to welfare benefits would impose vast costs on U.S. taxpayers. To get such a costly measure through, advocates had to create a sense of crisis about the existing situation of 12 million illegals. But those shouting “crisis” were in charge of immigration control while the number of illegals doubled. They had gone from complacency to panic in a single bound. It did not increase confidence in their advice. At the same time, the sense of crisis they created gave greater credibility to such alternative “enforcement first” measures as protecting border security, employer sanctions, and making deportation easier.

Advocates of the legislation as different as Sen. John McCain and think-tanker Tamar Jacoby were now trapped in a logical dilemma. On the one hand, they had to dismiss these alternatives to the bill as either unrealistic or barbaric; on the other, they had to assure doubters that these same measures in the bill would work fine and acceptably once the bill had been passed. By the end of the debates, the establishment experts were looking as confused and self-contradictory as the Bush-Kennedy bill itself. It was the leaders of the opposition—Senators Sessions and DeMint in particular—who seemed in command of the facts as well as the situation.

The legislation might still have survived if we had been living in the world of 1997. By 2006, however, the alternative media of talk radio and bloggers had been flourishing for several years. These broke stories, analyzed legislative contradictions, corrected erroneous media accounts, aroused opponents nationally, and in general organized opposition to the bill. Taken together, new media as politically different as Rush Limbaugh, Mickey Kaus, and NRO stalled the rapid progress that was essential for the bill’s passage. They revealed its defects. And they established that the bill’s bipartisanship was a fraud since the overwhelming majority of the GOP outside the Senate opposed it.

That peeled off a final layer of the bill’s conservative support. Bill Kristol, representing many neoconservatives disposed to favor the bill, came out against it. He did so in part because it had serious drafting defects but, more importantly, because it was creating a bitter gulf between rank-and-file Republicans and the party leadership. That in turn was imperiling Republican objectives in other areas, notably Iraq.

The bill failed, and it is unlikely to be revived until after the 2008 election. Some brand of immigration reform, however, there will have to be eventually. McCain in defeat gibed that opponents of the bill were purely negative and had no “solution” of their own. No shame attaches, of course, to being negative if the proposal under consideration will make matters worse, as McCain’s policy would have done. Yet as it happens, there are many sensible conservative proposals on the table. My own would be to revive those in the Jordan Commission of 1995. They are not ideal, but they are a sensible improvement on the status quo.

Until the battle recommences, however, if any indignant xenophobe is thinking of writing an exposé of this conspiracy of English immigrants to impose an “un-American” system of immigration law on the American people, Steve Sailer has already come up with the perfect title: “The Protocols of the Elders of Albion.”


John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.