President Trump invoked the words of the late Barbara Jordan, the trailblazing Texas Democrat, in a statement Wednesday on the 22nd anniversary of her death. But the statement seemed less about her than about Trump’s politics on immigration. Not surprisingly, it drew the ire of Texas Dems and scholars who said the president had misrepresented Jordan’s views for political gain.
Reaction was swift on Twitter:
Twitter user @Commonsenseb0t wrote:
This is actually very disgusting. He is using her death to indirectly attack current congressional Democrats on the issue of immigration.
— Grace #FBR #FBPE (@Commonsenseb0t) January 17, 2018
While @Cellularlinks said:
Politicizing the anniversary of a death of a congresswoman is just a silly idea AT BEST. This WH press shop is so bad at their jobs.
— Matt Swift (@Cellularlinks) January 17, 2018
And @JoelKlebanoff had this stinging take:
That may be so, but this is a big step up for Trump. In at least this one instance he’s telling a half-truth.
— Joel Klebanoff (@JoelKlebanoff) January 17, 2018
In his statement, Trump tied his “America First” immigration agenda to the “spirit” of Jordan’s vision. The president said Jordan “epitomized the American Dream she worked so tirelessly to protect.” He noted that in 1966 Jordan was the first African American woman elected to the Texas Senate and, in 1973, became the first woman to serve Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, a seat she held until 1979.
Mostly, though, Trump — who has been criticized for comments he made about restricting immigration from some poor countries — focused on some of Jordan’s views on immigration.
Trump said Jordan challenged our nation’s leaders “to maximize opportunities for all Americans by adopting an immigration policy that puts American citizens first.” He’s right.
As chairman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, Jordan said the commission believed that the nation needed a properly regulated system of legal immigration that set limits on the number of immigrants — 550,000 — on a yearly basis. It’s no secret that Trump would like to limit who gets into the U.S.
As committee chair, Jordan “was reflecting the views of the commission, a group of people, and she was taking a middle position,” Ruth Wasem, an LBJ School public policy practice professor who was a Congressional Research Service immigration specialist, told the American-Statesman.
“Jordan called for an end to chain migration, which has allowed millions upon millions of low-skilled foreign nationals to compete for opportunities and resources against our most vulnerable American citizens — many of whom come from African-American and Hispanic-American communities,” Trump said in the statement.
Several studies show that claim is misleading.
“The impact of immigrant labor on the wages of native-born workers is low… However, undocumented workers often work the unpleasant, back-breaking jobs that native-born workers are not willing to do,” Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote in her Brookings Institution Essay, “The Wall.”
Immigrants find jobs because Americans don’t want the jobs that are available.
Those more likely to “steal” American jobs are immigrant professionals — engineers and technology workers — of which Trump suggests we need more.
More importantly, Trump’s statement doesn’t appropriately reflect Jordan’s immigration views.
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.
As President Lyndon B. Johnson’s protegee, Jordan found inspiration in Johnson’s Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which — besides concentrating on attracting skilled labor — abolished a quota system based on national origin and focused on reuniting families.
It would be inaccurate to paint Barbara Jordan as a supporter of racist policies that discriminate against immigrants from poor countries, said Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas history and global affairs professor.
“Jordan would find such positions offensive,” Suri said.
Missing from Trump’s cynical attempt to connect Jordan’s immigration views to his are her support of refugees and respect for all people. Respect for others was not unique to Jordan in her time. It was present in the nation’s overall political climate then.
Oh, how things have changed.
During her congressional tenure, both sides of the aisle favored civil rights-related rhetoric, Suri said. That rhetoric, he said, centered around inclusion, absence of prejudice and the belief that all parts of the world should be respected.
Back then it was rhetoric that Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill could agree on, even if policy didn’t always back the rhetoric, Suri added.
“Today we have the party of Reagan regularly, its leaders, use racist rhetoric when they talk about people of color and immigrants,” Suri said.
And, it seems, shamelessly use the legacy of beloved leaders of color like Jordan for political gain.
Updated to reflect Jordan’s time as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.