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The anti-immigrant movement’s dishonest portrayal of Barbara Jordan

Last month, the White House released a statement portraying Barbara Jordan, the late civil rights icon and the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, as an immigration restrictionist. 

The message is an enticing one for anti-immigrant groups and fits alongside their promotion of dated statements made by labor leaders who once opposed immigration: here are traditionally liberal leaders who represent traditionally liberal constituencies arguing for the restrictionist side. In Jordan’s case, however, it’s just not true.

The White House took its cue from the same anti-immigrant groups that are also providing it policy guidance. Since her death in 1996, Jordan’s legacy has been deliberately twisted by anti-immigrant organizations that are part of the Tanton network such as Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), NumbersUSA, and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Both CIS and FAIR are designated hate groups by SPLC. NumbersUSA has even said Jordan is its “spiritual godmother.’

The origin of this story dates to when Jordan chaired the Commission on Immigration Reform in the early 1990s. The Commission was created by the 1990 Immigration Act to evaluate immigration policy. Nine bipartisan members made up the commission and released a series of recommendations including a modest increase in family immigration. Jordan’s testimony to Congress in 1995 asked for 150,000 more visas for the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents. On the recommendations made by the Commission, President Clinton said, “Consistent with my own views, the commission’s recommendations are pro-family, pro-work, pro-naturalization.” 

In one of the more prominent examples of revisionism, CIS exploits Jordan in a 2016 brief titled “Remembering Barbara Jordan and Her Immigration Legacy.” In the introduction to the brief, CIS claims: 

One of Jordan’s goals was to reduce legal immigration by eliminating the right for citizens and legal immigrants to sponsor the immigration of siblings. President Clinton endorsed that aim and then backed off, in what the Boston Globe described as a favor to Chinese-Americans who had donated heavily to the Democratic Party. The authors of the book The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform observed that “Clinton could not as easily have abandoned the Commission’s proposals on legal reform had Jordan survived.”

The authors of the book The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform, James Gimpel and James R. Edwards whose analysis underpins CIS’s interpretation of Jordan’s legacy, are themselves restrictionists and would later become CIS contributors. 

Former Congressman Bruce A. Morrison who served alongside Jordan on the Commission on Immigration Reform does not think such counterfactuals are necessary. In a 2016 editorial in The Washington Post, Morrison argued that Jordan was in fact on the opposite side of the restrictionists of her own era:   

“Instead of prioritizing nuclear-family unity and deregulating green cards for skilled employees as Jordan recommended, Congress, egged on by restrictionists, enacted the punitive 1996 law to make legal immigration harder, which did not reduce illegal immigration.”

In an interview with Hatewatch, Morrison was quick to clarify that many of the quotes included in the CIS brief represent the votes of the nine-person bipartisan Commission and not Jordan herself, adding “ ... she spoke for a broad bipartisan group.” 

“What the Commission recommended was a reallocation of existing numbers of immigrants with an emphasis on the children and spouses of green card holders who were waiting in long lines and they should come first. After the spouses and minor children of citizens. It was a priority setting, not an overall reduction in legal immigration,” Morrison explained. 

Was she a restrictionist? “No,” Morrison said, the “simple answer to what I would call the unfair appropriation of Barbara Jordan to a position she would not support if she were here is that they have told half the truth about what the Commission recommended and the part they have left out is the part that makes clear she was not a restrictionist.” 

CIS’s version of Jordan was also used by NumbersUSA during during the presidential primary debates of 2015. In a political ad, NumbersUSA featured a clip of Jordan announcing the recommendations of the commision to cut annual green cards by a little over 100,000. The clip fails to provide context for the quote. The small decrease was recommended to accommodate an accompanying proposal to increase the number of visas for nuclear family members of legal permanent residents something NumbersUSA along with CIS and FAIR would call “chain migration” and bitterly oppose. Jordan explained this at the 1995 United We Stand America conference saying, “Our aim is to ensure every nuclear family member is able to reunite with his U.S. relatives within one year of application.” 

Now, these organizations are blending her accomplishments and image with the hardline immigration stances of President Donald Trump. Brian Lonergan, the director of communications at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of FAIR, wrote in January 2018, that “Her rhetoric was ahead of its time considering the pro-enforcement sentiment that swept Donald Trump into the White House in 2016.”
Stephen Miller, Trump’s hardline anti-immigrant policy adviser, once served as a keynote speaker at a CIS event and has cited the group since taking up his role in the Trump Administration. 

The Tanton network

NumbersUSA, CIS and FAIR are part of a network of organizations created by John Tanton, a Michigan opthamologist, who believes a “European-American majority” is required to maintain American culture.  

Scholar Steven Gardiner describes these groups in his 2005 paper, “White Nationalism Revisited,” “[t]here are also organizations, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) for example, that in their push for mainstream acceptance vehemently deny racist motivations, even while playing to radicalized fears and allying themselves with doctrine white nationalists.” Tanton and the leadership of FAIR, CIS and NumbersUSA have sought to distance themselves from racist ties for decades by attempting to portray the restrictionist movement as a large community, that includes minorities, environmentalists and even progressives. Tanton was able to convince prominent figures such as Walter Cronkite and Linda Chavez to the board of U.S. English, but both resigned in 1988 when a series of racially charged strategy memos penned by Tanton a few years earlier were leaked. These memos asked things like, “Will Blacks be able to improve (or even maintain) their position in the face of the Latin onslaught?” and, “As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?”

Tanton has also made reference and use of Jordan for over 20 years. 

In 1996, he wrote to former Governor of Colorado, Richard Lamm, “It is time to bring the age of migration to a graceful close, and to focus on those, left behind. That won't be adopted in 1996 - but it might be in 2001! Perhaps a ‘Jordan Commission’ position is not enough beyond the “strength in our diversity” and “nation of immigrants” rhetoric to really move the system.”

In August of 2000, he wrote a memo about Christine Timmon, an African American talk show host in from Lansing, Michigan. He “told her about Barbara Jordan, which she was already familiar with, and offered to send her the names of some other blacks who are interested in the immigration issue” he wrote. 

For decades, anti-immigrant groups have attempted to make inroads with progressives and minorities in an attempt to make the movement appear to be a much bigger tent than it actually is. The continued efforts to manipulate the words of Barbara Jordan and conflating the decisions made by the Jordan Commission with her own are part of this ongoing effort to make it appear that immigration restrictionists come from both sides of the aisle. 

Photo credit: Bettman/Getty Images

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