The Real Presidential Immigration Villain Is Bill Clinton

Originally Published in Daily Beast

Opinion by Ruben Navarrette Jr. – April 5, 2021

Yeah, the Democrats are generally pro-immigration, and Republicans are anti. But it’s a lot more complicated than you might think.


Brian Lawless – PA Images/Getty

Who’s the father of the modern immigration restrictionist movement? It’s not who you might think.

Americans get confused by the immigration debateThe party that they think is lenient on immigration actually has strong anti-immigrant undercurrents, which are disguised as concern for U.S. workers. And the party that they’re sure is tough on immigration actually can’t wait to open the borders with gimmicks like guest worker programs, which are designed to provide foreign laborers for U.S. employers.

The immigration debate is like a Dishonesty Olympics. Everyone lies to everyone about everything—and you can’t believe anything.

Truth is, the real hard-asses on immigration are usually Democrats. And the ass who was hardest of all was Bill Clinton. Yep, the 42nd President of the United States is in fact the father of the modern immigration restrictionist movement. Here’s why.

While serving as governor of Arkansas, Clinton was part of the Democratic Leadership Council, along with Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and others. And one of the issues that some of its centrist Democratic members emphasized—along with opposition to welfare and support for the death penalty—was a firm hand in dealing with immigration. These middle-of-the-road Democrats worried about being outflanked by Republicans as soft on immigration enforcement, just as they had been portrayed as soft on Vietnam in the 1970s and soft on crime in the 1980s. They overcompensated by dropping the hammer whenever they had the chance.

For Clinton, that opportunity came in 1994. In California, white Republicans rattled by the state’s changing demographics were having success gathering signatures for Proposition 187, a ballot measure that sought to deny benefits to the undocumented and their U.S.-born children. Clinton had carried California in the 1992 presidential election, which was not a given back then, as George H.W. Bush had won the state in 1988. It’s a good bet that Clinton was keeping an eye on what was happening there with regard to immigration; Democrats were about to find themselves in a tough spot since opposing the initiative would open them up to charges of being soft on illegal immigration. If only Democrats had an enforcement mechanism of their own, to counter what the Republicans were concocting.

On Oct. 1, 1994, the Clinton administration launched an effort to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego with Operation Gatekeeper, which installed more fencing and deployed additional border patrol agents. In 1993, the administration had launched Operation Hold-The-Line near El Paso, Texas. In 1995 came Operation Safeguard, near Nogales, Arizona. Today, these initiatives are seen as having produced mixed results.

For instance, Operation Gatekeeper appears to have done a lot of good in cleaning up the border area. But it also pushed thousands of immigrants into the Arizona desert, where many died.

Many of those who got through settled in Phoenix and laid the groundwork for changing that city into one that is now 46.2 percent Latino. In turn, this demographic shift caused many white people to panic and led to the racist 2010 Arizona immigration law, which required local and state law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law even if they have to engage in ethnic profiling in order to do it.

Then came Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union address, where he said the following: “All Americans… are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public service they use impose burdens on our taxpayers.”

That sounds positively Trumpesque.

The following year, Clinton did one of the most anti-immigrant things a U.S. president has ever done. He signed The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, authored by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-TX. The enforcement-only measure made it easier to deport people and nearly impossible for them to return legally once deported. The bill passed thanks to the votes of many Democrats, including 22 Democratic senators.

To this day, my friends who are immigration attorneys have to battle the 1996 law tooth and nail to keep clients from being deported.

Thanks for nothing, Bill.

It’s important to remember that, before Clinton was sworn into office for the first time on Jan. 20, 1993, there was, for the most part, no national immigration debate.

Sure, Congress had passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and the dialogue had been contentious. But most of the arguments had focused on employer sanctions, not the provision that would eventually give amnesty to nearly 2.7 million people. The GOP’s fingerprints were all over that bill. The chief author was Sen. Alan Simpson, R-WY. In the Senate, the 63 lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill included 29 Republicans. And, on Nov. 6, 1986, it was ultimately signed into law by a Republican President—Ronald Reagan.

Reagan had long been a supporter of amnesty, as was his primary rival in the 1980 presidential campaign and future running mate and vice president, George H.W. Bush. Besides, in 1980, there were still relatively few illegal immigrants living in the United States. And that wouldn’t change for another 14 years. After the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Jan. 1, 1994, parts of the Mexican economy took a hit and displaced workers headed north to los estados unidos.

In other words, in 1980, the immigration debate was—at least on the national level—pretty much chill.

The same definitely could not be said for what would happen that year at Fort Chaffee, a military base in Arkansas. President Jimmy Carter had ordered that as many as 20,000 Cuban refugees be housed at the facility. On June 1, some of the refugees rioted and a fire broke out. Local residents were terrified, and many armed themselves to the teeth. The whole situation was a powder keg.

Sixty-two people were injured in the melee, and even after the riot was quashed, there was still a political price to be paid by those who let the situation get so far out of hand. The young governor of Arkansas was voted out of office in November 1980.

A rising star in the Democratic Party, that young man would run for governor again in 1982 and win back the seat. Ten years later, he would run successfully for president and take with him to the Oval Office the major lesson of the Fort Chaffee uprising: Never underestimate the power of the immigration issue—or its first cousin, the refugee issue—to blow up in your face. And it’s better to be seen as too tough than too weak.

Bill Clinton took that lesson to heart while serving as president. And, in doing so, he wrote the script for the telenovela that Americans are still living to this day. That is one shameful legacy.




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