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Original Author: Ramesh Ponnuru
REMEMBER the immigration debate of the '90s? [For Sam Francis' definitive answer to this silly question, click here] Just a few years ago, immigration was a major issue in national politics. No longer. [Of course, this was written before 9/11, but it was still strikingly superficial]. Back then, Congress was on the verge of cutting immigration levels. Now it's considering raising them. In the polls, public support for reductions in legal immigration has dropped 20 points from its mid-'90s peak. Republicans in California, who once thought they could make big gains by appealing to anti-immigration sentiment, now blame their efforts to do so for destroying the state party. Nationally, Republicans take every opportunity to say how good immigration has been for America.
What happened? My colleague John J. Miller wrote an article for Reason two years ago that listed several reasons for the shift: the tendency of public support for immigration to wax and wane with the economy; the development in Washington of a savvy pro-immigration lobby linking business and ethnic groups; and the widespread belief among Republicans that an anti-immigrant image hurt them badly among Hispanic and Asian voters. [Most of whom weren't going to vote Republican anyhow, and many of whom don't vote at all. See below.]
Miller's article was persuasive on each point. [See what Chilton Williamson meant about mutual admiration?] But he did not linger on the question whether the restrictionists could have done a better job making their case—and for those of us who find that case compelling, it is an important question. The anti-immigration movement of the '90s raised serious issues, especially about the way continued mass immigration contributes to the balkanization of America, that had been too long ignored. Anxiety about those issues is bound to find political expression again in years to come. If restrictionists draw the right lessons from their failure last time, it may help them to prevail then.
The first tactical mistake was to insist on a moratorium on immigration, as leading critics of the status quo such as National Review and Patrick Buchanan did. The appeal of a moratorium was understandable. America had blundered into its current immigration policy rather than deliberately chosen it; a cutoff would let us design a rational policy from scratch. Simply proposing a moratorium forced a debate on the costs and benefits of continuing the existing policy, Restrictionists hoped that it would produce a compromise in which immigration was cut.
It didn't quite work out that way. The demand for a moratorium obscured the true position of the restrictionists. It made it seem as though they opposed all immigration, when in the main they wanted less immigration or different criteria for immigration or both. Proposing to end all [Actually, not all. A moratorium means no net immigration. Gross immigration could be as high as 2-300,000. This is one of a number of signs that Ponnuru has not grasped the basic reform argument] immigration, even temporarily (A qualification that was usually, and predictably, [Predictably in this case means that we're giving a "handle" to the left, who will call us racists. But they will anyway.] ignored), also raised the emotional temperature of the debate on both sides.
The moratorium may have excited anti-immigration voters more than a proposal to halve immigration levels would have. But it also struck many voters as a sign of blanket hostility to immigrants—which was unwise in a country where 14 percent of adult citizens are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. [How did that happen? See Alien Nation for the answer.] The exit polls from the Republican presidential primaries in 1996 told the tale: In places where few immigrants lived, the issue favored Buchanan but was not important; [There are fewer places where few immigrants live, but they are the GOP heartland. However, the truth is that Buchanan barely mentioned immigration, focusing instead on trade. And his real problem was that he was demonized, not least by National Review, for being "out of the mainstream." The immigration issue could do a lot of good for Republicans - if the leadership would get behind it. Cf the tax cut issue, now a GOP mantra but regarded as impossibly radical in the 1970 – which Ponnuru is too young to remember] where there were more immigrants, the issue had greater power but, on balance, hurt him. Where immigrants were an issue, they were also a constituency. [They may be rioting in the streets of Los Angeles, but elected officials are unwilling to do anything to offend those of them who vote.]
The restrictionists might have succeeded had they staked out a