What went wrong with liberalism? Current and former liberals, like myself, should be even more interested in this puzzle than conservatives are. There are no simple answers nor a single pivotal moment of error, but the 30th anniversary this month of the 1965 Immigration Act illuminates the issue.
The Immigration Act was given only modest attention at its inception and even less in histories of the Great Society. In retrospect, however, it can be seen as perhaps the single most nation-changing measure of the era. The Hart-Celler Act, as it was called at the time, abolished the national origins quota system installed in the 1920s, shifting the basis for selection from an applicant's nation of birth to his or her family relationships or skills.
A few critics questioned whether the new legislation, originally launched by President John F. Kennedy, would enlarge the immigrant flow and shift it from Europe to Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Supporters emphatically denied this. "The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society," Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts said. Attorney General Robert Kennedy predicted 5,000 immigrants from the entire Asia-Pacific Triangle, "after which immigration from that source would virtually disappear."
"The effect of the bill on our population [in numbers] would be quite insignificant," Rep. Emanuel Celler, the act's co-sponsor, said.
The importance of the law lay not in any change in immigration's volume or composition, sponsors said, but in its overdue elimination of the odious discrimination in US immigration law in favor of or against people on the basis of where they were born. The 1965 law was thus seen more as an extension of the civil rights movement than an immigration measure.
But 30 years later, it's clear that the assurances of the law's sponsors were untrue. The number of legal immigrants immediately jumped to 400,000, then to 800,000 by 1980, and reached well over 1 million in the early 1990s, when those given amnesty in 1986 and their relatives are added to the total. Illegal immigrants add 300,000 or more annually, many coming to join legally admitted relatives. Total immigration last year was 1.2 million, according to Center for Immigration Studies calculations. What's worse, the number of legal admissions is set by statute, unrelated to overall economic trends such as unemployment.
Immigrants and their children now account for perhaps one-half of United States population growth, and that proportion is certain to continue climbing into the 21st century. There are perhaps as many as 40 million more people in the US today than there would have been if the annual average number of new immigrants under the old system had remained undisturbed, according to demographer Leon Bouvier. The immigration flows of the last 30 years have not only been larger but also less well-educated, since skills-based immigration accounts for only about 10 percent of the total flow. Family "reunification" and refugee and amnesty flows, acknowledged to bring people of lower educational attainment, account for the rest.
As for the origins of immigrants under the post-national origins quota system, the era after 1965 amounts to a "revolutionary experiment," in author Peter Brimelow's words. Immigration from northern and western Europe shrivelled to less than one-tenth of the total, despite Senator Kennedy's recent efforts to enlarge the flow of Irish. Over the past 15 years, Latin America has accounted for more than 40 percent of legal immigration, with Asia not far behind.
This was precisely the demographic transformation of America - making it ever larger and changing the composition of the population - that liberal Democratic sponsors of the 1965 act denied was the intention or would be the result of their reforms. People differ about the effects and overall desirability of these momentous changes, but the fact that they were originally disavowed and are now deeply and widely unpopular, is incontestable.
LIBERALS not only engineered this policy shift but became the chief architects of a taboo against any critical scrutiny of immigration trends and policy, always ready to apply a "racist" label to dissenters. Stirrings of a revolt were evident in California in 1992, and the reelection of Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and the passage of Proposition 187 exposed the dimensions of the liberals' mistake.
Inside the Beltway, an expansive immigration policy seemed a cheap way to please special interests (in this case, ethnic, religious, and agribusiness groups), since it appeared to be one of the few federal programs that cost next to nothing. Only lately has it become clear that the economic, fiscal, and environmental costs are substantial - borne by all citizens, but especially by the Democrats' low-income, working-class base.
The political costs are now coming home to the party that (with GOP help over the years) fashioned the post-1965 system. Launching a federal program that fundamentally alters the nation's demographic course will take its place as the leading example in the second half of the 20th century of elite arrogance and disconnect from either the sentiments or the interests of the broad public.
We shall see if the Republicans now in control of Congress understand this better than their predecessors.