The gulf between Barack Obama’s immigration stance and Barbara Jordan’s

During his November 14 press conference, President Obama said his broad vision of comprehensive immigration reform “is very similar to the outlines of previous efforts at comprehensive immigration reform.” This is newsworthy because previous comprehensive immigration reform efforts since 1986 have produced seven amnesties, none of which reduced illegal immigration. This begs the question: Is the permanent reduction of illegal immigration a goal of this administration?

The last bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform studied the issue for six years. President Clinton appointed former congresswoman and Democratic icon Barbara Jordan as its chair. Jordan rose from humble means to become a lawyer and the first Southern black woman elected to the House of Representatives. She was a leader in the civil rights movement, a professor of ethics, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a world-class orator (two of her speeches are considered among the greatest of the 20th century). Her appointment gave the commission instant credibility. Jordan said that she believed her responsibility as the head of the commission was to restore credibility to the U.S. immigration system. On the issue of illegal immigration, Jordan was unambiguous about her goals: “Unlawful immigration is unacceptable. Those who should not be here will be required to leave.”

President Obama signaled a different philosophy on November 14, saying, “I do think that there should be a pathway for legal status for those who are living in this country, are not engaged in criminal activity, are here simply to work.”

This is a clear departure from the approach advocated by Jordan, who couldn’t have been clearer on this point. “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,” she said. “Let me be clear: that is not enough.”

Jordan’s stated concerns were 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.” At the time, 3-4 million foreign citizens were working illegally in the U.S. Today, 7 million illegal workers hold U.S. jobs while more than 20 million U.S. citizens and legal immigrant workers can’t find full-time work. If that isn’t the immigration problem that Obama proposes to fix, what is?

Additionally, if Obama believes an exception should be made for illegal aliens who “are simply here to work,” does that apply only to those who are here illegally today, or will his exception extend to future waves of illegal workers? If he wants to make this exception for any future alien who violates the terms of her visa or crosses the border illegally, why have limits on immigration at all beyond terrorists, rapists, and murderers? If President Obama wants to limit the exception to an eighth (and final?) amnesty, why is he advocating a “continuation” of policies that got us into this mess in the first place? Obama has rejected Jordan’s framework without articulating an alternative.