President Donald Trump added an unexpected name into the national debate over immigration policy Wednesday by invoking the words of Barbara Jordan, the late groundbreaking Texas Democrat, in a message honoring her on the 22nd anniversary of her death.
Trump said his “America First” immigration agenda was furthering “the spirit of Jordan’s vision” — angering Texas Democrats and prompting scholars to say the president had taken Jordan’s words out of context.
Trump’s message began by quoting Jordan saying, “It is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest.” Trump’s message continued, “With this simple, common-sense perspective, civil rights icon Barbara Jordan challenged our nation’s leaders to maximize opportunities for all Americans by adopting an immigration policy that puts American citizens first.”
Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement, “As a Texan, an American, and a human being, I am insulted that Trump would invoke Barbara Jordan’s name to promote his racist and dangerous immigration agenda. This trailblazing daughter of Texas was devoted to the Democratic ideals that helped shape the America we live in today. She was a champion for justice. Donald Trump is not worthy of uttering her name.”
Jordan was the first African-American woman to serve in the Texas Senate when she was elected in 1966 and was the first woman to represent Texas in the U.S. House in 1972. She became a national figure in the impeachment process of President Richard Nixon and as a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 1976. She retired from Congress in 1979 because of health issues and taught in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.
Jordan also chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, now named the Jordan Commission in her honor, that called for limiting family migration to children and immediate family members, introducing the E-Verify employment system and promoting a skills-based system of entry.
In a 1995 column in The New York Times titled “the Americanization Ideal,” Jordan wrote, “Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave.”
While Jordan’s statements appear to resonate with the conservative advocates of limited legal immigration, Ruth Wasem, a LBJ School public policy practice professor who was a Congressional Research Service immigration specialist, said Jordan’s call for “Americanization” should be viewed in the context of the mid-1990s when she made it.
“It doesn’t capture the spirit of Barbara Jordan,” Wasem said of the president’s message. “She was reflecting the views of the commission, a group of people, and she was taking a middle position.”
Wasem said that Jordan was worried about the impact of unskilled immigration on minorities but that she was not advocating a return to race-based immigration policies. “She wanted to fully incorporate immigrants into American society,” Wasem said. “Americanization,” was a term she was redefining, Wasem added, “it was not meant as ‘America First.’”
Trump concluded his message by referring to the current struggle to come up with an immigration deal that accommodates young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children and what he considers his mandate to secure the border.
“My administration is optimistic that Republicans and Democrats in Congress will come together, for the good of our country, to pass legislation that secures our southern border with a wall, stops chain migration, and ends the visa lottery program once and for all.”