If Rick Perry were more in tune with the nation’s sentiments about immigration, he might have been clever enough to blame it on another Texas politician, Lyndon Baines Johnson. After finger pointing at the former president, Perry could have tempered his enthusiasm to appeal to middle America’s hesitancy about more immigration. Instead, Perry waved the red flag by promoting the DREAM Act and insisting that anyone who disagrees with him is “heartless.”
Johnson would have been a perfect target. After all, Johnson was instrumental in setting off nearly a half century of contentious immigration debating. In 1965, Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act that changed America forever. The legislation marked a radical break with previous immigration policy and eventually led to profound changes in America.
At the time Congress—and specifically Ted Kennedy, the Immigration Act’s most vocal proponent— promised Americans that the new law would not produce significant changes in the nation’s demographic makeup. Johnson signed the bill at the height of the Civil Rights movement and during a period when considerable resistance had built up to the existing system of deciding which foreign-born individuals came to America.
In his Congressional testimony, Secretary of State Dean Rusk joined other proponents when he repeatedly insisted that the numbers of new immigrants would not “skyrocket.”
Finally, on Ellis Island at the signing ceremony, Johnson reassuringly said: “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power.”
But Johnson, Rusk and other advocates were 100 percent wrong. Whether they lied or were uninformed is still debated today. Whatever their reasoning, the immigrant population soared over the ensuing decades mostly because of family reunification. Today, according to Census Bureau data, the foreign-born population is nearly 40 million.
Perry can’t be blamed for history—in 1965, he was a high school sophomore. His problem is that voters perceive him as a candidate who wants to add to the entitlements illegal immigrants have benefited from during the last half century. Whatever sympathy Americans may have once had toward the immigration movement has slowly but surely eroded over the last 50 years.
Shortly after the Johnson signed the new law internal enforcement, which had been vigorously pursued under President Eisenhower, all but vanished. Border security became more lax. Schools and hospitals strained under the pressure of providing for more immigrants.
Gradually, Washington, D.C.-based ethnic identity lobbyists grew more vocal and more powerful. Soon, commercial banks and state governments accepted the bogus matricula consular card as valid identification. Some states issued aliens driver’s licenses. Anyone who objected to an increasingly liberalized immigration policy was quickly shouted down as a racist.
Then came what turned out to be the last straw for Americans determined to end illegal immigrant hand outs: the DREAM Act that would allow alien students to attend college and pay a lower, instate tuition fee.
In 2001, Texas passed the first DREAM Act. Since then, after fierce Congressional battles, a national version of the DREAM Act has been beaten back more than ten times. Perry should have realized that what worked in Texas wouldn’t fly during the prime time candidates’ debates.
As a result of his obtuseness, Perry will soon become a minor footnote in presidential politics—not that anyone will miss him.
The lesson for the other presidential hopefuls is a campaign that includes a sensible immigration platform, especially in this period of high unemployment, is a winner.
Joe Guzzardi has written editorial columns, mostly about immigration and related social issues, since 1986. He is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) and his columns are syndicated in various U.S. newspapers and websites. Contact him at JoeGuzzardi@CAPSweb.org.