Eric Ruark's picture


  by  Eric Ruark

Susan Martin, Professor Emerita of International Migration at Georgetown University, last week wrote a scathing attack on President Trump's immigration framework. Martin served as the executive director of staff for the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, most often referred to as the Jordan Commission in honor of its chair, Barbara Jordan, who passed away shortly before the commission's recommendations were officially submitted to Congress.

What perturbed Martin is that the "White House intimated that Barbara Jordan would have supported the proposals to be championed by the President." This misrepresents the Presidential Message Honoring Barbara Jordan released by the White House on January 17. That message contained no intimation that Jordan would have supported President Trump's proposals. It was instead an explicit statement of support from the President for policy positons Jordan took on immigration -- positions that were unambivalent and unequivocal.

Martin's contention is that:

The President's position on immigration, and the language he has used, represent all that Jordan decried during her long career and, especially as Chair of the commission. The statement misconstrues the recommendations of the Jordan Commission as justification for deep cuts in immigration that would make it harder for family members, employees and refugees to enter the country.

The language that the President has sometimes used is open to legitimate criticism, but it is, to borrow Martin's words, a "gross misstatement" to claim the President's position on immigration is at odds with the views Barbara Jordan more eloquently expressed during her time as head of the commission. Unless one were to criticize President Trump for not following through on his explicit promises to oppose amnesty and cut chain migration, and for his failure to make E-Verify the focus of efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.

Arguments from authority are not always fallacious, and Martin certainly has the authority to represent the commission's recommendations and to offer insight into Jordan's views on immigration policy. However, Martin is blatantly mispresenting both. She is not offering up reasonable interpretations about how to best implement the policies Jordan supported; nor is she revealing internal debates among the commission's members that led to its final recommendations. Instead, she is seeking to falsify the record in order to attack President Trump because he has embraced many of the policy fixes put forward by Jordan over 20 years ago.

If Martin thinks President Trump is a jerk, she is free to say so, but she shouldn't try to pass off personal attacks as policy debate. In engaging in the former, Martin makes several blatant misstatements of fact, which add nothing to the ongoing immigration debate and diminish her credibility as a reliable source of information.

If she no longer endorses the recommendations of the commission, Martin is likewise free to say so. But it is not acceptable for her to depreciate Jordan's legacy, for whatever reason. Martin knows full well what she is saying is not true, and her involvement with the commission and her professional relationship with Jordan make her arguments not just fallacious but egregious, and wholly inexcusable.

The Jordan Commission recommended cuts to immigration

Martin decries Trump because, it seems, the President "misconstrues" the commission's recommendation by believing they would have resulted in "deep cuts" in immigration. One may quibble over what would qualify as a "deep" cut. Here are the numbers. The Jordan Commission recommended a level of overall immigration that was 46 percent less than what it had been in the decade prior to the issuance of its final report, and if that recommendation were implemented today, immigration would be 48 percent less than what it has been over the previous ten years.

President Trump has made it clear he wants cuts to overall immigration levels, which would result in annual immigration admissions likely being somewhat higher than the 550,000 the commission recommended, though the cuts President Trump has indicated he wants would take place over a much longer time period. There is a real question arising from the framework the White House has floated about whether these cuts will ever materialize, or whether they are yet another empty promise being used to sell yet another amnesty that would go into effect immediately.

The President also endorsed the RAISE Act, which would keep the number of employment-based green cards at the current level, while instituting a merit-based system for the allocation of those green cards. The President's positions are consistent with Jordan's. Here's how she justified the cuts recommended by the commission in testimony to Congress on June 28, 1995.

Unless there is a compelling national interest to do otherwise, immigrants should be chosen on the basis of the skills they contribute to the U.S. economy. The Commission believes that admission of nuclear family members and refugees provide such a compelling national interest, even if they are low-skilled. Reunification of adult children and siblings of adult citizens solely because of their family relationship is not as compelling.

Yet, Martin claims the commission recommended cuts in chain migration not because it was in the national interest to do so, but because the members were concerned with "extremely long backlogs and waiting times" which threatened the "sustainability of the program." If this were true, the commission would have recommended clearing those backlogs, just as did for the spouses and minor children of U.S citizens and legal permanent residents. It is a curious characterization of the commission's position to contend that its members supported chain migration so effusively they voted to eliminate whole categories of extended family-based immigration. And it is inexplicable that Martin would attack the President for being more generous than the Jordan Commission when it came to clearing the backlog -- the list of individuals who are waiting to apply for green cards. The commission only recommended allowing nuclear family members on the waiting list to enter, while the White House has proposed letting everyone on the current waiting list in, which, at four million persons, is four times as many as the Jordan Commission recommended. This is a component of the White House plan that has caused NumbersUSA to oppose it.

Barbara Jordan did not believe chain migration was in the national interest

At a June 7, 1995 press conference a reporter asked Jordan "What is the rationale for reducing the overall number of immigrants. What is the basic reason for cutting back?"

The basic reason for cutting back is it enhanced the rationality of the system we have in place. When you have certain principles driving your outcome, and in this instance, that principle of nuclear family was the driver, it did not allow for us to continue in place with a present system where you would have very extensive waiting periods and priority categories which were inexplicable.

Here Jordan is clearly making an affirmative argument for the elimination of certain family-based visa categories, whose very existence she says are inexplicable. That is obvious to us today, as it would have been to those in the room with her almost 23 years ago, including Susan Martin, who was sitting next to Jordan at the press conference, where she also would have witnessed this exchange.

Reporter: "I've heard the phrase used by critics of immigration policy, a thing called the immigration chain, and by this particular policy you're pursuing, you sort of stop it. If it's just the husband and wife and minor children, people are here that basically are part of one family, and no more are coming, whereas if its brothers and sisters it constantly continues to go on and more and more people are coming over. Was that a factor in your decision [to cut immigration numbers]?"

Barbara Jordan: "Chain migration? Yes, it was a factor."

It is true that the commission recommended that parents of U.S. citizens still be allowed to immigrate to the United States. Also true, green cards issued to the parents of U.S. citizens have more than doubled (66,700 to 174,000) since 1996, the year the commission completed its work, precisely because chain migration has continued unabated. It is understandable that citizens who have parents overseas would want them to come to the United States, as their parents may require care as they grow elderly. It is also understandable that American taxpayers would balk at picking up the costs of that care.

When immigrants are less-well educated and less skilled, they may pose economic hardships for the most vulnerable of Americans, particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed. Immigrants sometimes utilize public service disproportionately, as in the case of elderly immigrants.
-- Barbara Jordan, June 7, 1995 (emphasis added)

Current proposals to end chain migration have dealt with this problem by allowing for parents of U.S. citizens to come to the United States on renewable, non-immigrant visas that would disqualify them from accessing public benefits, such as Medicare and Social Security.

President Trump's position on refugee admissions is in accord with statutory framework and historical norms

Martin attacks President Trump for his decision to set the current cap on refugee admissions at 45,000. She writes that the President has made the "most significant reduction" in immigrant admissions since the Refugee Act of 1980. What she fails to note is that the Refugee Act of 1980 set the ceiling at 50,000, while allowing for numbers to exceed the ceiling in case of emergency situations. The reason Trump is seeking to reduce refugee admissions is to ensure the program, rife with fraud and representing a national security threat without proper management, is brought back to a practical level in-line with its original statutory framework.

The Jordan Commission did not set a "floor on admission of 50,000," as Martin states," but instead recommended the "United States set numerical targets -- but not a statutory limit." The commission settled on 50,000 because that was the number established as a target by Congress in 1980. That this target was considered reasonable to the commission members is illustrated by the fact that this number was less than half the ten-year average of refugee admissions preceding its recommendation.

Refugee resettlement is extremely difficult to manage and very costly for the American taxpayer. Barbara Jordan understood this:

Certain legal immigrant populations may impose other costs: refugees often have special needs for health and other services, making resettlement significantly more costly than overseas solutions to refugee problems.

Yet, she supported reasonable resettlement efforts, as do many Americans, with the expectation that these efforts don't harm the national interest. The refugee program is designed to help those truly in desperate need, not as an exercise in virtue-signaling, or as another means of providing low-wage labor for U.S. corporations.

Martin does nothing to address the current situation regarding refugee resettlement in the United States, and totally ignores public sentiment on the issue, choosing instead a calumnious attack on the President by referencing the Holocaust. No doubt there is a crisis, or more accurately, crises of persecution and displacement of persons that demand American leadership. However, Martin's failure to acknowledge that the United States can do anything to help but a minuscule fraction of displaced persons through resettlement efforts completely distorts present realities; and her suggestion that Trump's bringing refugee admissions back in-line with the recommendations of the Jordan Commission will result in genocide is spurious and mendacious.

Barbara Jordan favored merit-based immigration

Martin is at her most incoherent when she attempts to distance the Jordan Commission from its support for merit-based immigration because, well, Trump is now for it. She claims the President has argued for immigration "based on 'merit' as measured by a points system that rewards education and English language skills." The RAISE Act which President Trump endorsed would utilize a points system, but that has not been something he has ever demanded in negotiations with Congress.

That the Jordan Commission did not recommend a points-based system does not mean it opposed a more merit-based approach. In fact, the opposite is true.

Under the commission's recommendations then, professionals with at least a baccalaureate degree and skilled experienced workers would qualify. Unskilled workers would not be admitted for employment purposes. Most foreign workers would be subject to the labor market test to ensure that American workers do not face unfair competition. The labor market test we envision would work on market principles rather than tedious lengthy and costly bureaucratic procedures. Employers would be required to make a substantial financial investment into a private sector initiative to be dedicated to education and training of U.S. workers.
- June 7, 1995

[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. -June 28, 1995

Jordan didn't formally embrace a points system, but President Trump has recommended a merit system that awards employment-based green cards using the very criteria Jordan emphasized, such as education, English-language skills, and a labor market test based on market principles.

It is one thing to reject a points-based system for America, similar to ones currently in use in Canada and Australia. It is quite another to argue that the idea of merit-based immigration was not a core tenet of the Jordan Commission, and it is garbled logic for Martin to then argue a points-based system would somehow result in "admission numbers and priorities…set in stone." Nowhere has the President said or even implied such a thing. He was elected largely on his insistence that the current immigration system is not operating in the interest of the American citizenry. If there was one abiding principle set forth by the Jordan Commission it was surely that the objective of U.S. immigration policy should be what's best for the American people. Yet, it seems the only thing Martin now finds to be appropriate, contrary to the Jordan Commission recommendations, is an immigration system which only allows for increases, and reducing immigration levels, something favored overwhelmingly by American voters, is, to her, beyond the pale.

Barbara Jordan opposed illegal immigration and amnesty

Martin criticizes the President for his overemphasis on a border wall, and the too little attention he has given to the implementation of E-Verify. This is the only genuine difference between the Jordan Commission and the framework put out by the White House. And an important one. Building a wall will do nothing to prevent visa overstayers, who account now for about half of illegal immigration in the United States. And it does little to prevent criminal employers from continuing to hire unauthorized workers. Any serious proposal to end illegal immigration must contain E-Verify.

However, "Illegal crossing are not at "historically low levels" at the U.S.-Mexico border as Martin claims. They are below historically high levels, which is a much different thing. And she loses the thread entirely when she ties the border wall to "irresponsible deportation initiatives." Deportation has nothing to do with building a wall, and removing illegal aliens from the interior of the country was not just something the Jordan Commission supported "when necessary," as in Martin's characterization. The commission found it was vitally necessary for a functioning immigration system that all removable aliens are in fact removed from the country to the greatest extent possible.

It is also false to claim that President Trump has not prioritized the removal of serious criminal aliens. What makes this President different from his predecessor is that President Trump has reversed policies that resulted in a de facto amnesty in which only serious criminal aliens are removed.

Martin writes that, in her opinion, Jordan "would have been a strong supporter of a path to citizenship for the Dreamers." There may be reason to believe that, but it's entirely speculative. Here is what Jordan told Congress in her testimony before the House of Representatives on August 9, 1994:

Why this distinction between the eligibility of legal immigrants and illegal aliens? Illegal aliens have no right to be in this country. They are not part of our social community. There is no intention that they integrate. As human beings, they have certain rights --we certainly should not turn them away in a medical emergency. As a nation, it is in our interest to provide a limited range of other services --immunizations and treatment of communicable diseases certainly fall into that category. But, if illegal aliens require other aid, it should rightly be provided in their own countries.

On September 29, 1994:

For immigration to continue to serve our national interest, it must be lawful. 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.

And on February 24, 1995:

To make sense about the national interest in immigration, it is necessary to make distinctions between those who obey the law, and those who violate it. Therefore, we disagree, also, with those who label our efforts to control illegal immigration as somehow inherently anti-immigrant. Unlawful immigration is unacceptable.

What Barbara Jordan would say today about immigration is impossible to know. That does not mean she and her work cannot be guideposts for those of us concerned with how to best reform a dysfunctional immigration system. In order to do so we must pay attention to what she did say, applying it as best we can to the situation we presently face. Fortunately, as has been demonstrated, it is easy to locate Jordan's own views, and the recommendations of the Jordan Commission. One does not have rely on secondary sources that distort and ultimately denigrate the culmination of her lifelong commitment to public service.

ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA

Updated: Thu, Jan 17th 2019 @ 9:14pm EST

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