Immigration is one subject of debate that is certainly not new in the political arena. Take an ad featuring a quote from Barbara Jordan that has been airing during recent presidential debates:
“The commission finds no national interest in continuing to import lesser skilled and unskilled workers to compete in the most vulnerable parts of our labor force. Many American workers do not have adequate job prospects. We should make their task easier to find employment, not harder.”
Jordan is remembered as a fierce Democrat, civil rights leader, and the first African-American women from the South to be elected to Congress. But her words are now being used in an ad created by a conservative immigration reduction advocacy group. Does it take her message out of context?
Vincent Cannato, associate Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, says not really.
“This is the early 1990s when Jordan’s commission is making their proposals,” he says. “One of her main proposals was to reduce the number of legal immigrants every year by about one-third.”
Today immigration is very starkly polarized, like everything else, Cannato says. Generally Democrats are “pro-immigration,” or in favor of large-scale immigration. On the other hand, many Republicans – not all – are in favor of some kind of restrictions.
But Cannato says in the not too distant past, strong Democratic interest groups were also in favor of immigration restrictions.
“Jordan’s commission shows that it’s African-Americans, labor unions, environmentalists, all traditionally-supported lowered immigration,” he says. “She’s not not anti-immigrant. She’s not against immigrants. This isn’t Donald Trump-esque rhetoric. The rationale behind the views of Jordan … is mostly an economic issue.”
The argument, Cannato says, is why import lots of foreign workers and laborers when there are Americans here who can work and do the job. There’s also a fear that bringing in especially low-skilled immigrants will tamp down the wages of native-born Americans.
A lot has changed in the decades since Barbara Jordan said this. The conversation began in the 1980s, when there were 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Now there are anywhere from 10 to 15 million. So is it a disservice to use her words in today’s context? Cannato says no.
“Concerns about immigration have become even more heightened,” he says. “But in one way that it’s changed is that these traditional Democratic groups – such as African-Americans, labor unions, environmentalists – have really moved away from voicing any sort of restrictionist rhetoric for the most part.”
Cannato says concerns about terrorism brought the issue of people coming into the US into the spotlight.
“The quote that everyone uses from Barbara Jordan’s commission is that America should have an immigration policy that meets our national interest,” he says. “There’s security issues, there’s economic issues, there’s cultural issues and that’s the debate that we’re having.”