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How Democrats Let the Right Win on Immigration

A new book traces the ways liberals have enabled nativism and xenophobia for decades.

John Moore/Getty Images

A theme of Daniel Denvir’s book All-American Nativism is the role that liberal political journals have played in giving cover to deeply reactionary ideas. In the 1990s, The Atlantic published a long and sympathetic review of the book Alien Nation by Peter Brimelow. While he was not yet the far-right webmaster he would become—his site VDARE today tags articles with the label “Immigrant Mass Murder”—Brimelow argued in his book that white Americans have a “legitimate interest in their country’s racial balance” and that the balance should be tilted back to a whiter era. Statements like that made the reviewer uncomfortable, but he ultimately praised the book as “powerful” and “painfully honest.”

Verso, 352 pp., $24.95

Another article published around the same time in the same magazine was a report from former journalist Roy Beck on a small Wisconsin town struggling to resettle Hmong refugees. While soberly reported, the story was darkly framed as “a possible American future” if immigration laws remained the same, where pregnancies in junior high among new arrivals were common and the small town’s new inscrutable foreign neighbors were said to act as a drain on the public treasury.

Beck at that time was serving as editor of the nativist quarterly The Social Contract, one of many anti-immigrant institutions founded or guided by the late John Tanton, another figure concerned with maintaining white racial dominance in the United States. Tanton’s entire strategy was to shift the debate on immigration in a restrictionist direction while keeping the project clean of the racist sentiment that drove it. He was not altogether successful. But he almost certainly viewed having both Beck and Brimelow taken seriously in a publication with mainstream appeal like The Atlantic as progress.

Where right-wing arguments on immigration are concerned, liberal magazines have not improved much since the 1990s. Today, prominent conservative writers like David Frum and Andrew Sullivan, from their perches at The Atlantic and New York respectively, have repeatedly admonished the left and Democrats to meet President Trump at least halfway on immigration or, in Sullivan’s words, “give him his fucking wall.” Last summer, Sullivan chastised Democratic primary candidates for opposing additional border enforcement under the Trump administration:

I can also note that most countries outside Western Europe have strict immigration control and feel no need to apologize for it. Are the Japanese and Chinese “white supremacists”? Please. Do they want to sustain their own culture and national identity? Sure. Is that now the equivalent of the KKK?

Sullivan not only appears ignorant of American white nationalists’ admiration for the Japanese immigration system and of Japan’s vibrant anti-Korean far right, but he praises China, which is at present engaged in the most sophisticated program of ethnic cleansing seen yet in this century.

But it was Frum’s cover story “How Much Immigration Is Too Much?” in April last year that carefully laid out the arguments made many, many times by self-described “restrictionists.” Frum has a long-standing relationship with another Tanton entity, the Center for Immigration Studies, where he’s appeared in several panel discussions organized by the group. CIS is also the only immigration advocacy source cited by name in his story in The Atlantic. Toward the end of his article, Frum essentially takes the same stance as Brimelow, arguing that “Americans are entitled to consider carefully whom they will number among themselves.” The Americans who get to do the considering are assumed to be synonymous with Trump’s base; if liberals insist on having a say and keep up their opposition to measures to “enforce borders,” Frum argues, “voters will hire fascists to do the job” instead.

The hostage-taking logic—that we must give the fascists what they want on immigration or else the fascists win—is the central political calculus Denvir shows to have greased the path to the “bipartisan war on immigrants” of his subtitle and the precipice we find ourselves hanging over today, when the president can use an unprecedented national health crisis as a pretext to suspend immigration. Negotiating with an ever more inflamed and ideological opponent has only resulted in the ratcheting up of “enforcement” brutality.

Denvir identifies the Progressive era’s Dillingham Commission, a bipartisan special commission that Congress launched in 1907, as the first institution to frame immigration as a “problem” to be solved by policymakers in the federal government. The commission’s recommendations, and advocacy by the likes of Madison Grant, Harry Laughlin, and other eugenicists in the intervening years, led to the Immigration Act of 1924, which dramatically reduced and placed a cap on immigration from southern and eastern Europe and banned immigration from most of Asia. It was not until President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that the discriminatory quotas from 1924 were eliminated. 

The epicenter of the nativist revolt that would subsequently consume the Republican Party and drag the Democrats rightward on immigration was California in the 1990s. During his first insurgent bid for the Republican presidential primary, Pat Buchanan capitalized on claims that thousands of undocumented immigrants were arrested during the 1992 Los Angeles riots (a figure publicized by then–Attorney General William Barr). “Foreigners are coming into this country illegally and helping to burn down one of the greatest cities in America,” Buchanan told reporters. “If I were President, I would have the (Army) Corps of Engineers build a double-barrier fence that would keep out 95 per cent of the illegal traffic. I think it can be done.” Similarly, the president of the Tanton organization Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, wrote a letter to the California congressional delegation urging it to consider “the role of illegal immigration in helping to deliver America’s second-largest city to the furnace of anarchy.”

Denvir describes the “kaleidoscopic dynamic of immigrant threat and white victimhood” behind the push several years later for California Proposition 187, which sought to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing nonemergency health care, social services, and public schools. The ballot measure was co-sponsored by the fanatical Barbara Coe, a onetime police analyst who was fired for using city police resources for her political crusade. Coe said she was inspired to take action following a visit to a social service office with a disabled war veteran where undocumented immigrants allegedly received benefits that her friend did not. Like Buchanan and FAIR, Coe tied immigration directly to crime. “You get illegal alien children, Third World children, out of our schools, and you will reduce the violence,” Coe told a reporter in 1994. “They shoot, they beat, they stab, and they spread their drugs around in our school system. And we’re paying them to do it.” The cause was picked up and amplified by Republican Governor Pete Wilson seeking his reelection, and in November 1994, voters approved Proposition 187 by a nearly 18-point margin, and Wilson won. By the late ’90s, the law was gutted by federal courts, while Coe would go on to speak at white supremacist events, including a rally where former Klan members burned the Mexican and United Nations flags. 

Denvir locates the Prop 187 fight as the beginning of the point of no return for the Republican Party and the start of the Democratic Party’s willingness to work on the terms set by nativists. Denvir notes that during the Prop 187 debate, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein not only accepted the premise that undocumented immigrants were to blame for the state’s poor economy but also blamed political correctness for making others afraid of speaking out on the topic. By 1996 (when Buchanan made another run, giving life to nativists), the Clinton administration was burnishing its tough-on-immigration credentials by sending armed forces to the border. “After years of neglect, we are finally restoring the rule of law, locking down the Southwest border,” then–aide to the president Rahm Emanuel told The New York Times.

The demonization of “illegal immigrants” in order to protect legal immigration became the “template for mainstream immigration politics” following the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 under President Bill Clinton. This law joined the wars on immigrants and crime and greatly and retroactively expanded the category of crimes that could lead to deportation, while also making deportation easier. While the IIRIRA was originally a Republican bill, Clinton and the New Democrats were eager to co-opt the right’s message. “By incorporating the opposition’s rhetoric, you remove their policy claims,” wrote Emanuel in a memo to the president, and by passing the IIRIRA, Clinton could and should “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.”

Later efforts to achieve so-called comprehensive immigration reform under Bush and Obama—both of which offered pathways to citizenship and even more in the way of enforcement—were nevertheless undermined by the growing power of the nativist right within the Republican Party. Denvir notes that the goal of the nativist movement is ultimately the end of all legal immigration. Thus the bipartisan effort to create a massive deportation regime and militarize the border did little to neutralize the issue, but instead, by creating a sense of crisis, helped provide an opening for Trump to storm the stage.   

Denvir, a fellow at the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University and host of Jacobin’s fantastic podcast The Dig, is also an activist, who recounts some of his past immigration advocacy in his book, including working for a small Central American solidarity group in Portland, Oregon, in the 2000s. He also describes how important the efforts of militant youth activists, including those who organized the 2010 Trail of Dreams cross-country march, were in obtaining the precarious Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections for undocumented immigrants under Obama.

Looking at recent polling, Denvir sees in the backlash brewing against Trump potential to break the long-standing bipartisan status quo. As Denvir writes, “[T]his moment of maximal nativist power is more like a supernova; a big terrifying explosion marking the end, not the beginning, of a political cycle.” Polarization, lamented everywhere in the mainstream press and among the centrist Democratic candidates for president, is good and especially needed on this issue. “If Democrats stick to the center on immigration, they will find themselves fighting on two fronts,” he writes. Instead, “a fight against Republicans, with the Left at their back, will be far easier to win—and a more noble victory.”

What might be most important about this book is Denvir’s livid account of the failures of the Obama administration, which racked up annual interior deportation levels that still outnumber Trump’s. (In July last year, in fact, the House Oversight Committee had to delete a tweet on “Kids in Cages: Inhumane Treatment at the Border” because it featured an image of a detention center—taken in 2014. Trump did not miss the opportunity to point out the hypocrisy, nor to defend his own policies.) If Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, wins the presidency in November, it will almost certainly mean a rollback of Trump’s worst immigration policies. But it will be unlikely to change the terms of the debate, built on nativist assumptions. It will take a serious reckoning to do that.