Barbara Jordan's Vision of Immigration Reform


“Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave.” – February 24, 1995

Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) was a Civil Rights leader and a pioneering public servant. She was the first African-American woman elected to the Texas Senate (1966), the first woman from Texas to be elected to the U.S Congress (1973-1979), and the first African-American to deliver the keynote address at a Democratic National Convention (1976).

Jordan also gave a pivotal speech before the House Judiciary Committee at the opening of Richard Nixon’s impeachment trial (1974), which brought her to national prominence and is recognized today as one of the best examples of rhetoric in American political history.

Due to her stature and reputation for integrity, she was appointed chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, and served in that role until her death in January 1996. Jordan testified several times before Congress regarding the work and findings of the Commission. Below are quotes from Jordan’s testimony before Congress which outline her grasp of the issues surrounding immigration and highlight Congress’ continuing failure to act on the Commission’s recommendations.

The work of Barbara Jordan and the other Commission members was part of the inspiration for NumbersUSA’s founding. As you will see, Barbara Jordan’s words are still relevant today, and NumbersUSA still has sensible solutions that will bring about the Commission's recommendations to stop illegal immigration and bring legal immigration down to a moderate level.


“The Americanization Ideal”

On September 11, 1995, Barbara Jordan wrote an opinion column in The New York Times entitled “The Americanization Ideal.” In it, she clearly laid out what guided her work as the chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. Paying respect to the history of immigration to the United States, Jordan did not allow the concept that “America is a nation of immigrants” – a concept she embraced – to distract her from formulating a “well-regulated system of legal immigration [that] is in our national interest.”

Jordan promoted the process of Americanization for immigrants, in which the culture and heritage of other nations are accepted as part of the fabric of American society, and immigrants accept that immigration imposes a mutual obligation for them to follow the law, learn English, and educate themselves on American history.

Those standards are not controversial and few would quibble in theory with what Jordan wrote in her opinion piece. However, she was tasked with chairing a bi-partisan committee created by Congress to come up with specific recommendations for reforming the U.S. immigration system. Jordan was up to that task. You can read the committee’s recommendations here.

Below, in her own words taken from Congressional testimony, Jordan expands on how we can reach the goal of an immigration system that works for America. 

An Immigration Policy in the American Interest

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“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.”– February 24, 1995

 “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.” – June 28, 1995

Solution: Moderates, conservatives & liberals working together

Limits on Immigration

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“As a nation of immigrants committed to the rule of law, this country must set limits on who can enter and back up these limits with effective enforcement of our immigration law.” – August 3, 1994

“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.” – June 28, 1995

Solution: End Chain Migration


Protect Vulnerable Americans

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“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.” – June 28, 1995

“Immigration policy must protect U.S. workers against unfair competition from foreign workers, with an appropriately higher level of protection to the most vulnerable in our society”– June 28, 1995

“The Commission is particularly concerned about the impact of immigration on the most disadvantaged within our already resident society – inner city youth, racial and ethnic minorities, and recent immigrants who have not yet adjusted to life in the U.S.”– August 3, 1994

Solution: Reduce Unnecessary Worker Visas


Turn Off the Jobs Magnet

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“Employment continues to be the principal magnet attracting illegal aliens to this country. As long as U.S. businesses benefit from the hiring of unauthorized workers, control of unlawful immigration will be impossible.” – August 3, 1994

“This is a nation governed by the rule of law. It applies to all. It is as illegal knowingly to hire someone who is breaking the law as it is illegal to work under false pretences.” –September 29, 1994

“Simply put, if we cannot demagnetize our economy for illegal aliens who come here to seek jobs, we cannot control illegal immigration. If we cannot control illegal immigration, we cannot sustain our national interest in legal immigration. Those who come here illegally, and those who hire them, will destroy the credibility of our immigration policies and their implementation. In the course of that, I fear, they will destroy our commitment to immigration itself.” – September 29, 1994

Solution: Implement Mandatory E-Verify


Prevent Illegal Immigration

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“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.”– February 24, 1995

 “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.” – August 9, 1994

Solution: Reduce Illegal Immigration Rewards


Increase Border Security

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“Far more can and should be done to meet the twin goals of border management: deterring illegal crossings while facilitating legal ones. But we have to recognize both goals.” – February 24, 1995

“It is far better to deter illegal immigration than to play the cat and mouse game that results from apprehensions followed by return followed by re-entry. To accomplish a true deterrence strategy will require additional personnel as well as a strategic use of technology and equipment. We will also require new measures of effectiveness because apprehensions alone cannot measure success in preventing illegal entries. Our goal should be zero apprehensions-not because aliens get past the Border Patrol but because they are prevented entry in the first place.” – March 29, 1995

Solution: Improve Border Enforcement


Deportations Are a Necessary Part of the Immigration System

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“The top priorities for detention and removal, of course, are criminal aliens. But for the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process.” – February 24, 1995

If people unauthorized to enter believe that they can remain indefinitely once having reached the interior of the nation, they may be more likely to come.”–August 3, 1994

Solution: Strengthen Interior Enforcement


No to Amnesty

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“If people unauthorized to enter believe that they can remain indefinitely once having reached the interior of the nation, they may be more likely to come.” – August 3, 1994

“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.” – September 29, 1994

Solution: Stop Amnesties


A Sensible Refugee Policy

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“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; elderly new immigrants are more likely to draw upon public services than elderly native-born Americans or immigrants who came to the United States at a younger age.”– June 28, 1995

Solution: Reduce Refugee and Visa Fraud


Immigration is Not a Path to Public Benefits

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“Citizenship and naturalization should be more central to the process of immigration. There are many barriers to naturalizing in law and practice, and they should be removed. But it is a debasement of the concept of citizenship to make it the route to welfare….We want immigrants to be motivated to naturalize in order to vote, to be fully participating members of our polity-to become Americans. We don’t want to motivate law abiding aliens to naturalize just so that they can get food stamps, health care, job training, or their homes tested for lead.”– February 24, 1995

For legal immigrants, we recommended making abuse of the public charge provision grounds for deportation. The affidavit of support that sponsors sign should be a legally-binding contract. Moral obligations work well enough in church, but the law requires a contract. – February 24, 1995


A Warm Welcome to Immigrants

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“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.”– August 3, 1994

“[T]he best way to fight discrimination is to treat everyone exactly the same….the Commission believes that the best defense against discrimination is adoption of a more secure, simpler verification process for determining work authorization.”– September 29, 1994

Solution: “No” to Immigrant Bashing



Barbara Jordan