Otis Graham: "35 Years Of Lows and Highs of Immigration Reform"
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[Previously by Otis L. Graham: The Unheeded Second Thoughts Of John Higham]

Peter Brimelow writes: Otis Graham, historian and veteran immigration activist, has been described, by Steve Sailer, as the “Last of the Nice WASP Progressives”. This niceness, and progressivism, shine through this talk he gave October 1 2011, at a Federation for Immigration Reform dinner in honor of FAIR founder John Tanton, who had abruptly retired from the FAIR board. 

The movement for patriotic immigration reform is a coalition, and many VDARE.com readers will not agree with Graham’s emphasis on population control and other liberal causes. I found it interesting that FAIR’s first Executive Director, Roger Conner, [Email him] was trying to achieve Politically Correct staffing some thirty years ago—an early symptom of the strategic cowardice that (in my view) has rendered the Beltway movement , despite Graham and Tanton’s honorable efforts, ultimately a failure.  (K.C. McAlpin, the staffer who, Graham reports, correctly disputed Conners’ Panglossian interpretation of the 1986 IRCA legislation, recently succeeded Tanton as head of US Inc).

Nevertheless, it takes all sorts to make a revolution, and Graham is right to suggest that he and his fellow reformers will one day be regarded as “prophets and heroes”—hopefully, not when they are “long ago dead” , as he stoically expects. Moreover, Graham’s very niceness, and progressivism, gives the lie to the vile $PLC campaigns against him and his—perhaps ineffective, but in this context unquestionably innocent—Beltway associates.

Otis L. GrahamFAIR board chair Sherry Barnes, judging me to be the oldest person expected to attend this meeting, asked if I would reflect on the high and low points that stretch over the more than three decades of our social movement to realign American immigration policy.

The story, for me, goes back to the Sixties. When that troubled decade arrived I was quickly drawn into several social reform movements—first Civil Rights, then environmentalism, anti-Vietnam war and women’s rights got my involvement. Four years as program director for Robert Hutchins’ Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions brought into my view the global population problem. This led to the discovery that America had a growing problem with illegal as well as expanding legal immigration. I wrote a white paper for a Center conference, and it was published in The Center Magazine.

That should have been the end of that. You write an article, nobody reads it, you move on. I was not looking for any more engagement with immigration—or population either, for that matter. I certainly did not need another cause. I was booked up.

I didn’t need an eye doctor, either, but in the summer of 1978 an ophthalmologist called me from a place I had never heard of: Petoskey, Michigan. This doctor, John Tanton, told me that he had read my essay and offered me a substitute for the tithe to my church which he somehow knew I was neglecting to pay. I could make up for my shortcomings by accepting the place on the founding board of a new organization he was forming: FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. A tiny social movement was about to be launched.

For some reason I agreed, and this social movement took over more and more of my spare time. I found myself serving on the board of FAIR and two other immigration reform groups. Here are my recollections of the highs and lows of this adventure.

A first high point came on the night the newly formed FAIR board met for dinner at executive director Roger Conner’s home in Arlington. John Tanton began to play Protestant hymns on the piano and we all sang by memory classics like “Amazing Grace” and “Abide with Me”, after which we told each other of our volunteer work in Planned Parenthood and our environmental activism. We were at once congenial but also conspicuously white, a condition we recognized from the first. Roger was intent on hiring a rainbowed staff and had considerable success. One walked into the FAIR offices and was met not by crew-cut white Young Republican types but an ethnic mirror of District of Columbia young staffers. An early staff hire was a writer named Richard Estrada who explored the Latino argument for immigration reduction.

The board was congenial and smart, but uninformed about the history or social reform movements. I seemed the only one expecting a long fight. “This job is going to take as much as ten years,” someone announced. I thought of the founding of the women’s movement at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. We were about to get a graduate lesson on how long it takes to bring about social change with citizen’s movements.

There was no leisurely period allowing us to train a staff on the issue and players. A fierce battle had already begun over the Immigration Reform And Control Act (IRCA), sponsored by Alan Simpson and Romano Mazzoli. When President Reagan signed the law in 1986 we were gratified at having played a small role. We had testified before Congress, and engaged in phone conversations and strategy sessions with Simpson and Mazzoli’s staffs, and both the major sponsors spoke at some of our gatherings. We could not agree whether we had won or lost. We had won, Roger said, because our tiny six-year-old organization had been players in the policy-making game, and the government had made at least a paper commitment to sanctions on employers of illegal workers. No, we had lost, top staffer K C McAlpin said, because the law’s tangle of compromises would have the effect of expanding illegal immigrant numbers and leave the problem unsolved. We would regret having signed off on it, especially the amnesty part.

IRCA was just a start and it should have prepared us for disappointments in Washington. Out in the national countryside, however, we reformers were slowly gaining members and command of the issues. FAIR ended the Eighties with 50,000 members, and the expanding reform movement was much strengthened in 1986 with the formation of an independent new research center: CIS, the Center for Immigration Studies.

There were exhilarating moments of good luck. Earlier in the decade Roger took a phone call from one Dick Lamm, who identified himself as the governor of Colorado. He had tuned in to Roger on TV, agreed with everything he heard, and came on the board. Suddenly our phone calls got answered at the highest political levels. Dick brought a splendid prose style and fresh, bold ideas, as in his classic 1988 essay Hard Choices, “We are trying to go beyond being good citizens and be also good ancestors.”

When the 90s came, our reform movement could claim sponsorship of at least three institutions inside the beltway and some scattered signs of local mobilization, but the expanding numbers of legal and illegal immigrants showed we were losing in the policy arena, if not in the struggle to mobilize and shape public opinion. Then in the early nineties a bonfire of restrictionist sentiment ignited at the grassroots level in California and took the form of Proposition 187, a state initiative to control immigration. This was immigration reform in the direction FAIR supported , though we had reservations about some details. Prop 187 won by a large margin and we welcomed it as a popular uprising invented on the West Coast rather than in DC—a sign of local mobilization that confirmed opinion poll evidence that sustained lawlessness did disturb the general public, including many Hispanics.

It was a disappointment when 187 was blocked by the power elites in California. We could take heart when Congress in 1990 established the Barbara Jordan-chaired commission on immigration reform.

“Unlawful immigration is unacceptable,” she boldly said. “Limits must be enforceable and enforced.” The commission agreed—with one dissenting vote—that illegal immigration should be ended. Jordan took her report to President Clinton in 1995 and he seemed to agree. Then her leadership was lost to cancer and both Congress and the White House were allowed to ignore her proposals.

Alan Simpson left the Senate and in a horrendous setback, Dick Lamm came in second in his bid for a Colorado Senate seat to a completely unqualified nonentity except for his name—Ben Nighthorse Campbell. The gods frowned on us that day.

Thus the century ended in frustration for us. Bill Clinton handed over the Presidency to George Bush, whose open border instincts were well known. We were heartened in the knowledge that public opinion surveys and other evidence such as the high visibility of the immigration issue on talk radio confirmed that a large segment, surely a majority of the public, wanted illegal immigration ended and had unfocussed objections to the era’s mass legal entries. Yet the Washington policymaking machinery seemed hopelessly controlled by the expansionist coalition we fought daily. It was composed of every business lobby with big agriculture and Silicon Valley in the lead, every major newspaper but the Washington Times, every religious lobby, all the Universities and most foundations, in short, the cultural commanding heights of American society. We had stirred and given a voice to the grassroots but the open borderists had a firm grip on Washington policymaking and the national media discourse.

When the 21st century arrived, this expansionist coalition, astonishingly, went on the offensive. Unsatisfied with porous borders and ports of entry, with a puny enforcement in the interior, they loudly demanded “reform” stealing our terminology and confusing the public mind. By “reform”, they meant essentially an end to the century-long effort to limit immigration. President Bush advocated amnesty for illegals and expanded guest worker programs. Mexican President Vicente Fox barnstormed in US cities demanding an open border. Dan Stein wrote to the FAIR board at the end of the century that we had never faced a more unpromising future.

He was right. Our coalition had not yet come together in respectable size and energy, combining environmentalists, minorities, labor, and patriotic societies. On what John Tanton often called “the battle of ideas” our movement’s performance was, I thought, impressive. FAIR’s policy papers by the nineties reflected an increasingly experienced staff, and CIS under Mark Krikorian’s leadership made a remarkable impact on public opinion and policy discussion. One also had to be impressed by the independent writers who were building the case for cutting immigration back and changing the selection criteria: Leon Bouvier, Vernon Briggs, Peter Brimelow, Roy Beck, Phil Martin, George Borjas, Georgie Ann Geyer, Madeline Cosman, Katherine Betts, Lindsey Grant, Larry Harrison and Sam Huntington, to mention only some.

In only one arena of the battle of ideas did we have to concede our second rate performance. Unfortunately, it had to do with our core argument—the urgent need in the US as in the rest of this crowded globe for population stabilization and reduction in order to cope with environmental decay and resource depletion. This overpopulation alarm bell had been sounded in 1948 by two best-selling books, by Fairfield Osborn  and William Vogt, and an elite social movement formed and gathered enough strength to persuade Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Ford to warn that curbing global population growth was essential to human progress as well as winning the Cold War. Paul Ehrlich’s 1967 book The Population Bomb reached millions with the message that overpopulation was a global environmental and resource calamity. Ehrlich’s book spurred the formation of an expanding social movement calling for population stabilization. Its organizational expression was Zero Population Growth (ZPG). Ehrlich himself had almost nothing to say about an American population problem, though his argument encompassed all societies. When President Nixon appointed a  National Commission On Population Growth And The American Future chaired by John D. Rockefeller the group’s 1972 report found that population growth brought the US more costs than social gains, and the nation “should welcome and plan for a stabilized population”. The commission report also contained a bombshell—the little noted immigration reform law of 1965 had expanded immigration to account for the 25% of US population growth, and a rising proportion. The commission somewhat reluctantly urged immigration restriction as part of a rational national population reduction policy.

Though few citizens read government reports, the population stabilization message had already been spreading like wildfire through the expanding environmental movement. In the 60s the Sierra Club adopted policy statements indicting overpopulation, and director David Brower said in 1966: “We feel that you do not have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.”

On the first Earth Day in 1970 the overpopulation theme was heard on hundreds of campuses across the country. British scientist C. P. Snow, speaking on a Missouri campus and asked by his student audience “What is the cause?” led them in a chanted response: “Peace, food, no more people than the earth can take!”

“It is widely agreed in the environmental movement of the 60s and 70s,” wrote environmental historian Samuel Hays, that “population growth should be limited.” This idea seemed to have the potential to push American government to a population stabilization commitment with immigration limits necessarily woven into it. Certainly the environmentalists, a potent reform force by the early 70s, had embraced the population limitation idea and framework: “Whatever your cause,” someone famously said, “It’s a lost cause without population control.”

Predictably, there was an immediate counterattack, the lead voice that of University of Maryland economist Julian Simon who wrote preposterous essays and books claiming that the earth could sustain unlimited human population growth. Simon was intellectually preposterous but a glib popularizer, and his visibility gave the impression that the cost/benefits of population growth on the modern scale was an open question, which it was not. The populationist alarm moved from a Presidential commission endorsement in 1972 to a contested quarrel by the end of the century. The story of the shrinking influence of “population growth” concerns has been masterfully told in a 2002 article by Roy Beck and Leon Kolankiewicz. A 1996 Presidential commission  on sustainability concluded that immigration must be reduced as part of a population reduction component of a shift to a sustainable society. But this far-sighted policy idea had the shelf-life of a weekend.

As the 21st century arrived, the open borderists who had created most of the policy framework for our nation’s mass immigration regime went on the offensive to achieve an even larger intake. Early in the George Bush Presidency, expansionists readied the components of “comprehensive immigration reform”—a “DREAM Act” amnesty and an agricultural guestworker expansion. We were on the defensive with no legislation of our own on the conveyor belt. Then, on September 11, 2001, suicidal illegal immigrants, in airliners, educated and mobilized the American public as we could not. Foreign assassins slipped easily into our country where unmolested they trained, made plans and then killed thousands of Americans in one day. A low and high had come together—an awful tragedy that connected porous borders with global terrorism, and also delivered the benefit of stopping Presidents Bush and Fox’s border opening in its tracks.

Mostly, the years following 9/11 were a stalemate mostly to the liking of mass immigration architects. We could not reduce the legal entry of more than a million immigrants a year, or reverse the pile-up of twenty million illegals counted in the country; at the same time we blocked their repeated efforts to give amnesty to all twenty million illegals. We took some gratification at the end of every week as we imagined the unhappiness of Frank Sharry and his buddies as they shed tears of frustration every Friday afternoon, when Congressmen went home without enhancing “comprehensive immigration reform”.

What will it take, the expansionists must have tearfully asked, to finally throw the doors open to everyone who would like to come and live in America? We have already smeared these restrictionists’ motives, called FAIR a hate group and depicted their founder, Dr. Tanton, as the evil puppeteer of bigots and racists. The result was a painful stalemate, leaving US immigration policy justifiably denounced by critics on all sides.

A political stalemate preserving an expansionist immigration policy is for us and for America, bad news. I predict that it will get even worse. We are going to continue losing for several decades.

And then we are going to win, which means, reverse the post-Sixties mass immigration policy era for the long term, radically shrinking immigration numbers entering America, reorganizing the selection principles of American policy and enforcing the law. Ahead of us is a new era of population stabilization for an overcrowded, resource-short, internally divided nation, aligning it finally on that indispensable demographic path to sustainability.

What forces might take us there, at long last? The relentless ecological crisis, especially the mounting costs of the heating up of the planet, will erratically but relentlessly focus elite and popular opinion not only on the insanity of further expanding populations but also the folly of encouraging the movement of “low impact people,” in Jared Diamond’s term, to developed countries where they become high-footprint people. This will take a long time and be resisted by many fools—the timing of its arrival governed by beneficial disasters such as more 9/11s in other crowded metropoles, and by something we have seen little of—moral and political leadership. One cannot imagine what we have never seen, a charismatic Hispanic mobilizer like Cesar Chavez, running for high office on the insight Chavez had in his social movement days—that a sustained flow of cheap foreign labor undermined all the social and economic aspirations of the large body of American citizens of Latin heritage. If that leadership can come again, the immigration and population policy of the United States could be transformed. Names like Senator Marco Rubio or Governor Susanna Martinez suggest the possibility of such a political and policy transformation.

On that good day, we reformers will be regarded as prophets and heroes who took a painfully long time to win their reforms and make our story one of the nation’s core narratives, alongside the companion social movements such as civil and women’s rights and environmentalism.

And we will all be long ago dead when our place in history finally comes…


Otis L. Graham, Jr. [Email him] is Professor Emeritus (History), University of California, Santa Barbara, and  author of the 2004 book Unguarded Gates: A History of America's Immigration Crisis.

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