Several years ago, I had coffee with a journalist friend before he headed over to Columbia to pick up his Pulitzer Prize for a series he co-wrote about the bribery scandal that sent California Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham to jail. (Cunningham also liked to boast that he was the model for Tom Cruise’s character in the movie Top Gun.)
Jerry Kammer and I had met in Arizona when I was reporting a story for Newsweek about the Navajo-Hopi land dispute. He was the resident expert, having already written a book about it. Later, we both reported on the S&L crisis for rival publications. He is an award-winning journalist, having won, besides the Pulitzer, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, George Polk Award, and Gerald Loeb Award.
Over coffee, I asked what he was working on. He answered that he was increasingly fascinated by the Mexico border, and was reporting for the San Diego Union Tribune on immigration issues. I drew him out, and he told me some of the conclusions he had reached: Uncontrolled immigration was hurting the country, was hurting American workers, and was straining labor markets and community resources—schools, neighborhoods, and medical systems. He said the growth was insupportable, and he was afraid of what the public backlash might bring. This was 2007.
I was shocked. I knew that Jerry was a liberal—he had spent years of his life writing for the Navajo Times, for goodness sake, and a prize-winning story about cruel and dangerous conditions in the maquiladoras. How could he say something as wild as, we need to control immigration? Wasn’t it the duty of American liberals to welcome into our country any and all who want to live here? And wasn’t it also the only defensible moral position, especially for a Jew?
I have been waiting since that meeting to read the book that would emerge. And now it’s just been published. After years of research, some as a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, Kammer has produced: Losing Control: How a Left-Right Coalition Blocked Immigration Reform and Provoked the Backlash that Elected Trump.
The book isn’t another unreadable policy tome. It’s a colorful, rich narrative, meant for people like me, who thought they understood immigration, but in truth don’t understand anything about it at all.
Losing Control explains the origins of the immigration mess we’re now in and its consequences for American society and American workers. It’s obvious how flooding the market with unskilled laborers takes away jobs from low-paid Americans and also depresses their wages. But American business is now finding an angle to import cheap immigrant labor for high-tech jobs as well. According to a recent Bloomberg piece, American high-tech workers are being fired and forced to train their replacements—immigrants from India who will accept lower wages on an H-1B Visa. “Rather than shepherding exceptional talent to the U.S. and turning them into Americans, the H-1B system has given companies a steadily expanding supply of guest workers who are themselves stuck in indentured limbo,” writes Rachel Rosenthal, who quotes Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia saying: “The H-1B program was never intended to create a pool of foreign labor that displaces Americans’ opportunities for good-paying jobs.” The misallocation of H-1B visa is just the latest tool the business lobby has used to ensure cheap, powerless laborers; in earlier decades it was agribusiness that played a major role in limiting immigration controls.
Kammer identifies the cause of our current immigration problems: decades of congressional failure to enforce the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1986; a law that Kammer tells Tablet was a “noble attempt at an historic compromise” between liberals and conservatives. It offered amnesty on the one hand to immigrants already established in the United States, and, on the other, strict controls on future illegal immigration through employer verification systems. Avoiding the dubious strategy of walls and border police, the act sought to “demagnetize the worksite” by focusing enforcement efforts on the employers. That strategy required a fraud-resistant identity card or some other dependable means of identifying who was a legal resident. However, the idea of a national identity card so inflamed both the civil-liberties left and the libertarian right that a consensus never could be reached to provide the key technology for effective enforcement.
IRCA was passed, amnesty was given, and a “strangest-of-bedfellows” coalition of activists, ethnic groups, business interests, and civil libertarians conspired to hamstring a credible system of enforcement. A feckless Congress and six successive administrations surrendered to the “powerful, intensely organized forces of the coalition” despite overwhelming public sentiment, expressed in polls year after year, for reasonable immigration limits.
Anthropologist Wade Davis wrote, in an essay in Rolling Stone on Aug. 6, “The collapse of the working-class family has been responsible in part for an opioid crisis that has displaced car accidents as the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. At the root of this transformation and decline lies an ever-widening chasm between Americans who have and those who have little or nothing.”
The immigrant population in the United States was 9.6 million in 1965 and 14 million in 1980. It more than doubled after the IRCA was passed to a whopping 31 million in 2000, and is about 47 million today. The largest group of foreign-born immigrants hail from Mexico, followed by China, India, and the Philippines.
Let’s drill down. Kammer writes: “The Latino population grew from 22 million in 1990 to 35.3 million in 2000. That growth rate was four times that of the overall U.S. population. It was fueled by a robust birth rate and major increases in both legal and illegal immigration. During the 1990s, while legal immigration continued at an average annual rate of about 900,000, illegal immigration rose by about 500,000 per year.”
Farm workers’ wages fell 8.7% during the 1980s while nonagricultural wages rose by 11%. In California, new immigrants took jobs away from established (legal) Latino workers, who had an unemployment rate double the national average. New immigrants were preferable because they didn’t complain about pay or terrible working conditions. UC Davis professor Philip Martin reported that in the 1990s, the percentage of foreign-born unauthorized (illegal) farm workers in California rose from 10% to 50%, and their wages in 1997 and 1998 averaged $5.93 an hour. (Most workers were married with children, and agricultural work is seasonal, meaning they and their families lived in dire poverty.)
Immigrants themselves argue for restriction. Kammer quotes Reihan Salam, whose parents immigrated from Bangladesh, and who is now president of the Manhattan Institute: “High levels of low-skill immigration will make a middle-class melting pot impossible.” The not-so-subtle title of his 2018 book is Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders.
Yet the combined forces supporting immigration expansion were more powerful than those advocating for restriction. California growers, whose “cynicism and greed” were decried by Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz, who served both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, teamed up with liberals like Nancy Pelosi who helpfully said, “immigration is who we are.” As Harvard’s Christopher Jencks wrote: “Legislators who work to expand the number of green cards win friends. Legislators who work to reduce the number make enemies. Unless that changes, immigration will keep expanding no matter what the polls show.”
“Open Borders” has now become a rallying cry of the progressive left, and many liberals believe that illegal immigrants should receive free health care, even while 44 million Americans go without health insurance, and an additional 38 million are underinsured.
In recent years, The New York Times, Kammer points out, has promoted unimpeded immigration as a moral issue. Kammer told Tablet: “Immigration is now a race-relations beat—and it’s covered by reporters who have a social worker perspective—they’re incapable of understanding that large groups of people are vulnerable to uncontrolled immigration—vulnerable people from the developing world—people who are here legally.”
In 2016, the paper of record issued a public mea culpa for being blindsided by Donald Trump’s shocking election. But the editors may never fully appreciate the visceral attachment supporters feel for the president and his ridiculous wall if they don’t try to understand the effects that uncontrolled immigration and globalization (read: the rapacious corporate hunger for ever-cheaper labor) have had on lives, work, and the social fabric. Not to mention the fury of the white working class over their demonization by wealthy urban elites who have ample stock portfolios and are free to wax self-righteously nostalgic and poetic about America being “a nation of immigrants” while enjoying the benefits of inexpensive (often illegal) immigrant child care, domestic help, and gardening.
Of course, immigrants bring energy, desire, and fresh ideas to the United States, as did our grandparents and great-grandparents; most immigrants themselves are hardworking and self-sacrificing. But many liberal Jews share the Times’ pious theology by conflating uncontrolled immigration from Latin America and Asia with the arrival of their own forebears from Europe in an age where unskilled labor fed hungry industries whose production lines were long ago exported to union-free, cheap-labor countries like China.
Demographic change that comes too fast can destabilize towns, states, and even countries. When middle-class families of all colors and national origins can no longer make ends meet, even with two working parents, and the prospect of a good life seems out of reach in spite of years of toil, the social contract frays. “How long can what the majority claims it wants be ignored, and what are the consequences?” asked urban sociologist Nathan Glazer in 2007, noting that the answer “raises a problem for democracy whose resolution may well be very disturbing.” And here we are.
Emily Benedek has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Mosaic, among other publications. She is the author of five books.