I vividly remember a conversation I had about fifteen years ago with a first-generation Mexican-American student at UCLA. I was stunned when she mentioned that her parents’ favorite U.S. president, hands down, was Ronald Reagan. Before she was born, she explained, her parents had crossed the border without authorization; they then lived as undocumented immigrants for years, until they got amnesty under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which Reagan signed into law. Later on, they became naturalized U.S. citizens.
Despite their nostalgia for the party of Reagan, by the aughts my student had persuaded her parents to switch their political allegiance to the Democrats. This was a decade before Donald Trump’s fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric propelled him into the White House, but already the Republican brand was tethered to restrictive immigration policies, especially in California, home to the nation’s largest undocumented population. Agricultural and business interests that depended on a steady supply of low-wage immigrant labor were still influential in the California GOP, but their relatively liberal immigration views were increasingly marginalized by other Republicans riding the wave of popular backlash against “illegal aliens.”
That backlash was fueled by what political scientists Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan L. Hajnal have called the “immigrant threat narrative”: blaming the growing immigrant population, especially its undocumented segment, for many of the nation’s social and economic woes. In this view, immigrants were “taking jobs” away from American workers. They were overburdening publicly funded healthcare and social services. And they were contributing to rising crime rates.
As I argued in Dissent in 2019, however, immigrants very rarely “take jobs” from U.S.-born workers; more often, employers transform once-desirable jobs into problematic ones by eliminating unions, cutting pay, or degrading working conditions, leading U.S.-born workers to reject those jobs and immigrants to be hired in their place. The other claims in the immigrant threat narrative are also inconsistent with the available facts. Yet that narrative steadily gained public traction in the late twentieth century, repeatedly articulated by conservative political voices and amplified in mass media outlets like Fox News.
Historian Sarah R. Coleman’s careful study of the dynamics of immigration politics, The Walls Within, exposes both the forces driving the immigrant threat narrative and the shifting political alignments shaping immigration policy in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Coleman argues that alongside better-known controversies over policing the U.S. border, a crucial debate raged about the extent to which noncitizens (whether undocumented or legal immigrants) should be entitled to access the public benefits—healthcare, education, and food stamps—that were available to the U.S.-born population. The Walls Within also highlights the growing involvement of state and local governments in regulating what had long been an exclusively federal domain.
Coleman’s account begins with the passage of the 1965 Hart–Celler Act, which defined the fundamental structure of employment- and family-reunification-based immigrant admissions that exists to this day. (She does not explore refugee admissions or the diversity visa program that began in 1990.) Hart–Celler was among the “Great Society” reforms enacted under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Because it eliminated the restrictive nationality-based immigration quotas that had prevailed since 1924, the law was widely heralded as an anti-discrimination measure. Yet as Coleman notes, “few of the bill’s supporters or opponents anticipated that the legislation would result in . . . a transformed population of unprecedented diversity.” Indeed, upon signing the bill into law, Johnson confidently declared, “It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives.”
He was soon proven wrong. Starting in the 1970s, legal immigration from Asia and Latin America spiked upward, as did unauthorized entries across the U.S.–Mexico border. Indeed, Hart–Celler was the start of what would later be called the “browning” of America, and it quickly sparked a nativist reaction. Alongside the rising anti-immigrant movement, which was bolstered by what Coleman calls an “invasion narrative,” a new immigrant rights movement emerged, which focused its advocacy on the growing undocumented population.
These opposing political forces collided repeatedly in subsequent decades. The first battle Coleman recounts was in 1975, when the Texas legislature voted to amend the state’s Education Code to allow public schools to charge tuition for unauthorized immigrant students. Immigrant rights advocates immediately responded with lawsuits, leading to a long series of court decisions and appeals. The final resolution came in 1982, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5–4 Plyler v. Doe decision struck down the Texas statute, finding that restricting undocumented immigrants’ access to public education violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “Many people on both sides of the issue,” Coleman observes, “saw the case as the first step in a long path to an expansion of rights for unauthorized immigrants.”
Plyler was argued before the Supreme Court early in the Reagan administration. But as the litigation wended its way through the lower courts in the late 1970s, broader political conflict over immigrant rights was afoot. A separate debate over limiting the growth of “entitlement” spending for both U.S. citizens and immigrants began to develop in this period. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration had barred states from using federal funds to provide support for unauthorized immigrants, prohibiting them from obtaining Social Security numbers, food stamps, welfare benefits, or unemployment insurance. Two decades later, some of these restrictions were expanded to exclude legal, authorized immigrants as well.
Democrats were internally divided on entitlement spending and immigration from the outset. The Carter administration vacillated on the issues posed by Plyler; at the same time some influential Democrats began to break ranks, joining Republicans in calling for restraint in entitlement spending, foreshadowing Clinton’s later move to “end welfare as we know it.” Republicans were split on these matters as well, although ultimately the Reagan administration embraced the notion, soon to be enshrined in Plyler, that unauthorized immigrants were entitled to equal protection under U.S. law.
These intra-party divisions on immigration politics and policy recurred throughout the late twentieth century. Both Republicans and Democrats were eager to attract the growing Hispanic vote, and each party included influential constituencies on both sides of the immigration debate. For example, most labor unions—a major force within the Democratic Party—supported immigration restriction in the 1970s and ’80s, while most other Democrats embraced the cause of immigrant rights. Meanwhile, agricultural and business interests in the Republican camp supported expansive immigration policies to ensure access to low-wage immigrant labor, even as the GOP’s increasingly powerful nativist faction was pushing harder and harder for restrictive measures.
As Coleman shows, these cross-cutting political divisions not only generated coalitions among strange bedfellows, but more often than not led to deadlock over immigration reform, at least until 1986 when Congress enacted IRCA. As with Plyler, the debates over what eventually became law under IRCA took shape in the Carter years but only came to fruition under Reagan.
IRCA included employer sanctions meant to punish those who hired unauthorized immigrants, a provision supported by organized labor and by Republican advocates of immigration restriction but strongly opposed by the Democratic-leaning immigrant rights movement and by the Republican-oriented business lobby. IRCA finessed these divisions by institutionalizing employer sanctions but simultaneously ensuring that enforcement would be virtually nonexistent. In another compromise, IRCA provided amnesty to about 3 million unauthorized immigrants, even as it dramatically increased funding for border enforcement.
IRCA proved a short-lived truce, and one that, like Hart–Celler, had unanticipated consequences. For example, increased border enforcement was supposed to stop the flow of unauthorized immigrants, but instead it had the opposite effect. As the costs and dangers of crossing the border rose, many seasonal migrants from Mexico and Central America chose to settle permanently in the United States, followed in many cases by family members. This development, along with surging demand for low-wage workers from employers who spent the 1980s engaged in a frontal assault on labor unions, spurred additional increases in unauthorized immigration.
Eight years after the enactment of IRCA, another pivotal conflict over immigration unfolded in California. Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s successful 1994 re-election campaign centered on his support for Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that proposed to deny the state’s growing undocumented immigrant population access to non-emergency healthcare and other public services, including K–12 education. Although it was never implemented and was later found unconstitutional by the courts, California voters approved Proposition 187 by a wide margin.
The immigrant rights movement mobilized mass protests against the proposition, while eligible immigrants in the state applied for citizenship in droves. In alliance with a group of California labor unions that had been organizing low-wage immigrant workers in industries like building services and hotels, immigrant rights groups helped the newly naturalized register to vote. This set of developments helped transform California into a solidly blue state and gave rise to a new generation of progressive Latinx elected officials.
Even as xenophobic politics were being rapidly eclipsed in California, the lopsided popular vote in favor of Proposition 187 had major repercussions at the national level. Two years after that vote, Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) into law. By then, moderate Republicans had been largely sidelined by restrictionists within the GOP, who were the driving force behind IIRIRA. Although it attracted less public attention than Clinton’s legislative attack on welfare, which was signed a month earlier, the two measures overlapped: both severely restricted immigrant access to publicly funded health and welfare benefits (emergency healthcare and education were spared). These provisions affected not only unauthorized immigrants but also many legal permanent residents with green cards. As Coleman puts it, “Citizenship was now the basic litmus test for rights.”
Along with its welfare restrictions, IIRIRA also provided funding for newly intensified border enforcement, expanded the legal grounds for immigrant detention and deportation, and increased the income requirements for immigrant sponsors. It also authorized state and local officers to carry out immigration enforcement for the first time in more than a century, although formal 287(g) agreements did not materialize until after the 9/11 attacks.
Coleman’s detailed historical account of the tug of war between advocates of immigrant rights and nativists ends in the 1990s, but the conflict she tracks has continued into the twenty-first century. At first, the aftereffects of 9/11 shifted the political center of gravity sharply rightward, with a surge of xenophobia that benefited restrictionists. But immigrant rights supporters soon recovered and resumed their efforts. Still, even bipartisan attempts at immigration reform like the 2005 McCain–Kennedy bill were thwarted by political gridlock.
By 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, some of the political alignments Coleman documents for the late twentieth century had shifted. Organized labor had pivoted to a position in support of immigrant rights at the turn of the twenty-first century, after a series of successful organizing campaigns among low-wage immigrant workers and in the face of growing recognition that sanctions on businesses that hired undocumented workers only enhanced employers’ power. Most other Democratic constituencies also supported the immigrant rights cause, while restrictionists now dominated the GOP.
Efforts to broker what came to be called “comprehensive immigration reform” (CIR) in the aughts uniformly ended in failure. Obama’s election sparked renewed hopes among advocates for CIR, but they withered as it became apparent that the president would dedicate the bulk of his political capital during his first two years in office to winning healthcare reform. Prospects for immigration reform dimmed further after Republican victories in the 2010 midterms. Under pressure from the immigrant youth movement, Obama signed an executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, but otherwise there was little to show for the movement’s efforts. Worse, deportations surged on his watch. Advocates for immigrant rights increasingly turned their attention to campaigns at the state and local levels, taking a page from the restrictionist playbook that had led to the passage of IIRIRA’s section 287(g).
The 2016 election of Donald Trump propelled the anti-immigrant movement into the vital center of national politics, but as Coleman notes in an epilogue, it “was not a recent phenomenon; instead, its shape and strategy were the result of the decades-long shifts” that she documents. The moral of the story for the post-Trump era is that the immigrant threat narrative and the nativist politics it enables are alive and well. That specter will continue to haunt the United States in the years ahead, even if Trump himself disappears into political oblivion.
The early months of the Biden administration offer another reminder that immigration remains a perilous third rail in American politics. Biden issued a raft of executive orders on immigration his first day in office to reverse many of the damaging policies his predecessor had unilaterally introduced. But it is a far heavier lift to pass legislation regularizing the status of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the United States—a goal Biden supports but one that does not appear to be high on his administration’s list of priorities. The danger is real that the Biden administration, like Obama’s before it, will talk the talk of immigration reform without walking the walk, especially if Republicans’ filibuster power continues to block Senate action.
In response to the disappointments of the Obama years and the abuses inflicted under Trump, the immigrant rights community is aggressively promoting a path to legalization for the undocumented as well as transformative proposals to repair the dysfunctional system governing future immigrant and refugee admissions. Implementing that agenda remains a formidable challenge, but it’s an increasingly urgent one in the face of climate change and political upheavals across the globe. The complex thicket of political divisions over immigration policy, whose origins in the late twentieth century Coleman so ably analyzes, remain largely intact. For those eager to advance the cause of immigrant rights, or for anyone who wants to understand the historical roots of the current political landscape, The Walls Within should be required reading.
Ruth Milkman is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. She is the author of, most recently, Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat, and co-editor (with Deepak Bhargava and Penny Lewis) of Immigration Matters: Movements, Visions, and Strategies for a Progressive Future.
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