Eric Ruark's picture


  by  Eric Ruark

Salon published an op-ed comparing the speech First Lady Michelle Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention last week to the one given by former Congresswoman and Civil Rights activist Barbara Jordan in 1976 – the first DNC keynote address delivered by an African-American woman. The author’s take is that Jordan, like Mrs. Obama, put the country before politics.

Jordan was indeed an American patriot, and her work on immigration was an impetus behind the founding of NumbersUSA twenty years ago. Unfortunately, because of the course national politics have taken since her untimely passing in 1996, her final chapter in public life has been suppressed by many of those who detail her long record of public service.

Jordan loved her country and held her fellow citizens, all of them, in high regard. Accordingly, she was insistent that, while immigration was beneficial to the United States, her primary concern was how it affected the American people.

Immigration is far too important to who we are as a nation to become a wedge issue in Presidential politics. We have seen that kind of thing happen before, and it is not productive. I, for one, wish that we would do away with all the hyphenation and just be Americans, together.

There are people who argue that some illegal aliens contribute to our community because they may work, pay taxes, send their children to our schools, and in all respects except one, obey the law. Let me be clear: that is not enough.

Immigrants with relatively low education and skills may compete for jobs and public services with the most vulnerable of Americans, particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed. Jobs generated by immigrant businesses do not always address this problem.

Cultural and religious diversity does not pose a threat to the national interest as long as public policies ensure civic unity. Such policies should help newcomers learn to speak, read, and write English effectively. They should strengthen civic education in the teaching of American history for all Americans....[I]mmigration to the United States should be understood as a privilege, not a right. Immigration carries with it obligations to embrace the common core of the American civic culture, to seek to become able to communicate – to the extent possible – in English with other citizens and residents, and to adapt to fundamental constitutional principles and democratic institutions

There was nothing ambiguous about what Jordan believed was the best course forward on immigration reform, and to dismiss her work on immigration as irrelevant today, as some have done, is foolish if one contends that the rest of her career merits attention. If Jordan’s contributions during the Civil Rights Movement are rightfully honored, should not her service as chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, a commission which now bears her name, also be respected – or, at the very least, acknowledged?

Those who selectively screen out aspects of Jordan’s career do so because they refuse to recognize that had the recommendations of her commission been adopted, the nation might have avoided the bruising immigration battles of the last twenty years. Instead, immigration has become a wedge issue and all sides should heed Jordan's wisdom once again:

We decry hostility and discrimination towards immigrants as antithetical to the traditions and interests of the country. At the same time, we disagree with those who would label efforts to control immigration as being inherently anti-immigrant. Rather, it is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest.

– Barbara Jordan, 1936-1996

ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA

Barbara Jordan
2016 presidential election
immigration reform

Updated: Wed, Aug 17th 2016 @ 1:40pm EDT

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