Last Saturday afternoon, I listened to a gathering of Wall Street Journal editors and writers on Fox News discussing the congressional deadlock on immigration. Paul Gigot, Jason Riley, and Karl Rove were all disturbed that the president and congressional Republicans who followed his lead were stalling a compromise over DACA and other related immigration issues. These intransigents should have accepted something like the Graham-Durbin proposal that would have amnestied DACA recipients and their families while continuing chain migration but also making some provision for increased border security.
As I listened to these judgments, I thought, “Spoken like true Republicans.” These remarks explain why Trump rallied the working-class base that had long eluded Republican politicians. Trump and his advisers noticed what had been clear for some time: for many decades, the Democrats generally took the harder line on immigration, even if neither national party offered steady resistance. Although both parties voted for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for that legislation in Congress.
The most vocal opposition to this reform came from Southern Democrats, who feared that the immigration act would change the ethnic profile of the country by removing national quotas. Republicans had no interest in the concern raised in 1965 by North Carolina Democratic senator Sam Ervin:
The people of Ethiopia have the same right to come to the United States under this bill as the people from England, the people of France, the people of Germany, [and] the people of Holland. With all due respect to Ethiopia, I don’t know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.
The most comprehensive amnesty act ever passed by any administration (it granted amnesty to over three million illegals) was under President Reagan in 1986, and it enjoyed near unanimous Republican congressional support. A major opponent of immigration in the 1990s was a black Democratic congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordan, who believed that immigration drives down the wages of poor whites and blacks. It is important to recognize that Jordan and her Democratic supporters were not making the cultural conservative argument advanced by Senator Ervin and his Southern Democratic colleagues in the 1960s. They were making traditional working-class arguments against immigration, arguments that had been heard from the American Federation of Labor in the first half of the twentieth century and from the French Communist Party after World War II. But this opposition to increased immigration stood in stark contrast to the multicultural perspective of the current Democratic Party and the corporate capitalist donor base of the GOP. Significantly, Jordan’s position continued to resonate in Ralph Nader’s presidential races in 2000 and 2004. It was also reflected in Bernie Sanders’s vote against the immigration reform act of 2007, which he thought would hurt low-paid American workers.