In the aftermath of the immigration bill’s defeat, supporters on both the left and the right have wondered how compromise legislation, containing so many proposals that Americans seemed to back in polls, could have won so little public support. Many of the bill’s backers seem to be missing the point: what killed it was not opposition to any single proposal, but rather the public’s overall cynicism on immigration. Ordinary citizens simply don’t trust our leaders on this subject any longer, and until the president—some president—and the Congress gain back their trust, it’s unlikely that we’ll have any “comprehensive” reform.

I got a firsthand glimpse of this cynicism when I wrote, after the bill’s introduction, that it might represent a good first step toward a useful immigration policy, and that the skills-based entry system that it proposed would undoubtedly be better for our economy than our current system, which grants most permanent visas based on family relationships. The responses that I received from readers had little to do with the substance of the bill or my commentary on it. Instead, readers said that they didn’t believe the legislation would do what its supporters claimed; they doubted that its enforcement provisions were workable; and they expected advocates of a more liberal policy, from big business to multicultural advocacy groups, to undermine the legislation or to find loopholes in it once it passed. In short, Americans believed that the devil was in the details, that surely there were tiny provisions of the bill that would betray its stated intentions.

I can’t blame them for thinking that way. The American public has been misled numerous times on the issue of immigration, and the backlash against this bill represents its collective anger about those betrayals, which date back to the 1965 legislation that drastically changed our system and led to the mess we have today. That legislation, conceived during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, was supposed to make our immigration system appear fairer by moving us away from quotas based on national origins. Proponents swore that the adjustments would be mostly symbolic and have little real effect on immigration. Senator Edward Kennedy, who back then was the young chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on immigration, boldly proclaimed that the bill, “contrary to the charges in some quarters, will not inundate America with immigrants” and “will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.” Kennedy also confidently predicted that no immigrant under the new system would become a “public charge.”

He couldn’t have been more wrong. Immigration levels sharply rose following the bill’s passage, increasing by 60 percent in the first 10 years alone. Whereas during the 1950s about 2.5 million legal immigrants had entered the country, that number soared to 4.5 million during the 1970s and to 7.3 million during the 1980s. Moreover, any number of studies, including one published in 1998 under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that immigrants had indeed become a “public charge,” heavily using taxpayer-financed social services like Medicaid. In California, the NAS study found, the strain that immigrants put on public services and social programs was costing the average taxpayer an additional $1,200 a year.

The 1965 legislation also had the effect of increasing illegal immigration. As more newcomers made their way here legally from Asia and Latin America and more people in those countries heard tales of American opportunity, many determined to get here by any means possible, so that by the mid-1980s, an estimated 3 million illegals were living in the United States.

The flood of immigrants led to calls, starting in the 1970s, for more restrictions on immigration, but an unusual coalition of business groups and liberal advocacy organizations managed to forestall reform even though polls showed that the public wanted it. When reform did come, in 1986, Americans were told that in exchange for granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, the U.S. would strictly sanction businesses that knowingly employed new illegals.

But that bill’s framers didn’t keep their promises. Enforcement of employer sanctions proved virtually nonexistent. At the same time, the legalization process for immigrants lacking documentation was rife with fraud. An underground market in phony documents thrived, and faced with hundreds of thousands of applications for legalization that it couldn’t possibly evaluate thoroughly, the Immigration and Naturalization Service rubber-stamped many submissions.

And then, having given America a hollow reform in 1986, Congress raised the number of legal visas four years later, adding a host of new immigration categories. These included a “diversity” visa that granted entry to some 50,000 winners of a lottery, mostly from Europe, whose presence was meant to balance the increased flow of immigrants from Asia and Latin America.

Beyond this checkered legislative history, what has also fueled cynicism is that our immigration laws are often applied unevenly or openly flouted. New York City declares itself an “immigrant haven” and its government workers routinely provide services to anyone, no questions asked. Meanwhile, towns that try to enforce immigration laws find themselves sued by advocacy groups and told by judges that the law of the land is no business of theirs. Governments often provide illegals with rights that even some citizens don’t have, as when a state allows undocumented residents to pay discounted tuition rates at a public university, while American citizens from other states who want to attend that university must pay the higher out-of-state tuition.

This woeful record of duplicity and unkept promises means that it will take more than compromise legislation to win the American public’s support for immigration reform. First, our legislators and our president need to stop pandering to interest groups and start enforcing the laws we have. Then, maybe, Americans will be ready to discuss immigration reform again.


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