- - Thursday, August 21, 2014

Jeff Sessions, meet Barbara Jordan.

Mr. Sessions, the conservative Republican senator from Alabama, would seem to have little in common with Jordan, the late liberal black Democratic representative from Texas. Yet the Senate Budget Committee’s ranking Republican is channeling the renowned civil rights leader, not merely Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, on immigration. Mr. Sessions and Jordan would agree: Put Americans first.

Appointed by Bill Clinton to chair the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, Jordan articulated that bedrock principle in testimony before Congress in 1995: “It is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest.”

Congress had appointed the commission to correct the abject failure of the wildly misnamed Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Regarded by Ronald Reagan as the worst mistake of his presidency, the legislation conferred citizenship on 3 million illegals in exchange for phantom enforcement. In keeping the doors wide open for tens of millions of foreigners from the Muslim Middle East and dysfunctional Third World countries, the measure extended the diversity agenda of the Immigration Act of 1965, an overlooked component of LBJ’s Great Society.

Her commission’s unanimous and patriotic recommendations: Fully “Americanize” all newcomers, curtail immigration levels, end extended-family-chain and illegal migration, ratchet up border security, and establish an airtight employment-verification system.

However, Congress failed to heed the commission’s advice — with disastrous results. The continued invasion not only proved a national-security threat — the Sept. 11 airplane hijackers entered the United States on student visas — but also turned the labor market decidedly against native-born Americans, especially working-class black men, the intended chief beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Enter Mr. Sessions, for whom mass immigration is part of a fight for middle-class Americans against all the powers of Washington and Wall Street who, worshipping the gods of globalization and multiculturalism, oppose much of what Jordan’s commission represented. Bucking corporate America, which thinks U.S. wages are too high, and cosmopolitan elites, who want to weaken America socially and culturally, the southern senator insists that the welfare of 20-plus-million unemployed and underemployed Americans trumps the desires of outsiders to take jobs here or gain amnesty.

This is why Mr. Sessions helped write a House bill that yanks at the roots of President Obama’s concocted border crisis and is pulling out all the stops to circumvent the president’s threatened amnesty proclamation. It’s why the lawmaker blocked President George W. Bush’s attempt to push “comprehensive immigration reform” through Congress, and discredited similarly ballyhooed legislation last year.

With the latest Gallup poll ranking “immigration and illegal aliens” as the country’s No. 2 problem, this determination elevates the Republican as a go-to leader who understands middle-income voters. In contrast, most other prominent Republicans favor open borders. Even the “reform conservatives,” high-level GOP policy wonks who say they want to help Middle America, are pushing a compromise between populists and elitists. Yet their plan of offering undocumented aliens a legal status short of citizenship, while boosting high-skilled immigration, would flood the labor market at both ends.

Mr. Sessions — not the reformist conservatives or strategist Karl Rove — is the authority the GOP should heed, and not simply because he’s keeping Jordan’s wisdom alive. Rather, Mr. Sessions also is following an authentic Republican tradition established by Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.

In his 1901 message to Congress, Roosevelt demanded high standards of admission, including an “intelligent capacity to appreciate American institutions and act sanely as American citizens,” as well as a “personal capacity to earn an American living and enough money to ensure a decent start under American conditions.” These measures would stop the “influx of cheap labor,” the 26th president warned, “which gives rise to so much bitterness in American industrial life.” The Rough Rider also insisted on excluding the terrorists of his day: “all persons known to be believers in anarchistic principles.”

Coolidge delivered the package, signing the Immigration Act of 1924. Over the next four decades, this model reform scaled back the influx of foreigners, allowing a confident American host culture to assimilate the 27 million who arrived during the first great immigration wave.

Even as he objected to the legislation’s Japanese-exclusion clause, the 30th president strongly defended the law: “Restricted immigration is not an offense, but purely a defensive action. We cast no aspersions on any race or creed, but we must remember that every object of our institutions of society and government will fail unless America be kept American.” Today’s no-borders conservatives, many of whom lionize Silent Cal, never cite this perspective.

The Roosevelt-Coolidge border tightening served national interests far better than LBJ’s loosening, or Reagan’s 1986 fumble. Ten years after the Coolidge presidency, the reform had facilitated the coalescing of a cohesive and strong nation, the “Arsenal of Democracy” ready to prevail in World War II. Afterward, the country thrived for 30 glorious years, creating a vibrant middle-class culture and a high-wage economy that was the envy of the world.

Why the bosses of both parties ignore this history remains unclear. Still, the American people can be thankful that the three-term senator from Alabama, like the Democratic congresswoman from Texas, as well as his legendary Republican forefathers, has stepped up to the plate to insist that America stay exceptional — and remain American.

Robert W. Patterson served in a senior speechwriter the George W. Bush administration.

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