HOW PRO-IMMIGRATION FORCES TRIUMPHED - AND WHY THEY'RE LIKELY TO KEEP DOING SO.
At a December meeting with Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, a group of trade association executives ran through their legislative priorities for 1998. Tort reform, regulatory relief, and tax credits for research and development topped their agenda - just as they always do. The RNC chief promised that the GOP would do what it could - just as he always does. The gathering could have occurred at any time during the last several years, and its content would not have been very different. It was another typically dull Washington roundtable discussion about how the federal government can help American business.
Right before the meeting ended, however, Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spoke up. "There's one more thing," he said. "If the economy keeps growing the way it has, we're going to run out of people." He predicted a severe labor shortage sometime in the next decade. Suddenly the room jumped to life. Josten's colleagues backed him up. Within five or 10 years, the group thought, there will be many more new jobs than people able to fill them. The country already is nearing full employment: The unemployment rate dropped to 4.3 percent in May, the lowest it's been in 28 years. An ominous demographic problem makes for more trouble: There are 22 million fewer Generation X-ers than baby boomers. "Unless we find new ways to increase our productivity, we're going to have to bring in more people simply to maintain the economy's growth rate," said Josten. "I'm talking about more legal immigrants at all skill levels."
It's hard to imagine anyone in Washington speaking these words just two and a half years ago, when it looked like congressional Republicans and President Clinton were close to an election-year deal that would have formally reduced legal immigration for the first time since the 1920s. A consensus had started to emerge among the Washington political establishment to scale back on admissions, primarily for economic reasons but also because of cultural concerns, population worries, and environmentalism. The bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, led by the late liberal heroine Barbara Jordan, supported the cuts and was instrumental in building the political momentum. Democrats such as Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) were looking for a populist cause to use against big business. Conservatives divided deeply and often bitterly on the issue, and it appeared as though much of the movement was ready to jettison Ronald Reagan's legacy of support for newcomers in order to ride a wave started by California's Proposition 187, a successful ballot initiative aimed at discouraging illegal immigration.
Some acted from a deeply held animus toward multiculturalism, which they believed was fueled by immigration, while others simply wanted a winning political issue. Groups long opposed to immigration because it increases population pressures, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, pressed their advantage. In addition to a reduction in numbers, restrictionists appeared on the brink of enacting an array of policies that would have reversed America's history of generous admission levels: income requirements for immigrants trying to gain entry; a ban on the employment of foreign students upon their graduation from U.S. colleges; new prevailing wage rules for companies hiring foreign-born workers; and - perhaps most threatening of all from a pro-immigration viewpoint - a provision that would have sunset the current system of admissions by a certain date and thereby put restrictionists in the political driver's seat. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), an anti-immigration leader, declared: "Business advocates continually give me the babble, 'All we want, Simpson, is the best and the brightest.' I say, 'Bull! You want the best, brightest, and cheapest, and I for one am going to bust up your playhouse.'"
But Simpson and his friends failed almost entirely, a defeat from which they haven't yet …