The happy and powerful do not go into exile,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant visitor from France who struggled to understand the dynamic new American nation nearly two centuries ago. His 1830s visit to the United States, and the book that resulted, “Democracy in America,” speak directly to our highly emotional, politically driven controversy over illegal immigration.
This current mean debate reflects an ugly streak in American history, but that is only one part of our heritage. Bellicose White House posturing, and lack of sustained work with Congress, shows the cynical motives involved.
Undocumented workers perform a large share of difficult and unpleasant manual labor that others in our great country tend to avoid today. Events only a few years ago provide a responsible example of how to address reform. This recent history contributes some useful clarity.
In January 2013, President Barack Obama publicly praised the cooperative initiative of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to update our tangled and disorderly immigration laws, regulations and practices.
Obama spoke in Las Vegas, a rapidly growing city with a large immigrant population, both legal and illegal. Substantial numbers of immigrants work in the hotel and related service industries, one of the few sectors of the American economy where union strength is growing.
U.S. Senators passed legislation that increased border security, penalties for employers hiring illegal immigrants and an orderly path toward legal residence and citizenship to help undocumented residents “get on the right side of the law.” Obama rightly termed this approach “common sense.”
In the Senate, Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida, and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, spearheaded immigration reform. Rubio, a presidential contender in 2016, is a conservative with strong Tea Party support. Florida has been pivotal in recent presidential elections, especially in 2000.
Schumer is now Senate Democratic leader. His prominence underscores the bipartisan character involved, plus adding geographic diversity, joining the Northeast of the country with the Sunbelt. The earlier effort died in the Republican House of Representatives, but Democrats are now the majority.
The U.S. Latino population is growing rapidly, and while heavily Democratic, shows variability. In 2012, the Obama-Biden ticket received an estimated 71 percent of the votes of that ethnic group.
By contrast, in 2004 the Bush-Cheney ticket secured an estimated 44 percent of the Latino vote, a modern record for Republicans. The Bush family sponsors a long-term sustained effort to court this population, beginning with the presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush. A responsible Republican approach to immigration could again attract this population.
John F. Kennedy quotes Tocqueville early in the book “A Nation of Immigrants,” published when the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts was campaigning hard for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1960. This important volume, generally overlooked today, was republished posthumously after the Kennedy Administration submitted major immigration reform legislation to Congress.
That bill significantly opened up new immigration opportunities to people anxious to come to the United States from many foreign nations. President Lyndon B. Johnson brilliantly drove the legislation through Congress. He deserves great credit for this and many other important reforms, including in civil and voting rights, education, medical care, poverty alleviation and more.
“A Nation of Immigrants” emphasizes the exceptional diversity of the U.S. populations. Kennedy also makes the point early that the only “original” residents of our country were the Native Americans who greeted the first Europeans to arrive.
(Author Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” [email protected])
(May Day marchers in Los Angeles called for support of labor and immigrant concerns such as wage improvement, immigration reform and a citizenship question in the upcoming national census. Photo: David McNew-Getty Images)