The Clichéd Sentimentality of Jon Meacham on PBS

When PBS asks someone like Jon Meacham — contributing editor to Time magazine, former editor of Newsweek, television pundit, and author of a Pulitzer-prize winning biography of Andrew Jackson — to write an essay on immigration, the result is likely to be a measure of elite media thinking on the topic.

And so it was with Meacham's commentary at the end of last Friday's "Need to Know" program. It was a call to welcome the world. It was also devoid of any recognition of how unconstrained immigration policy has become since passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

Ostensibly, Meacham's essay was an argument for more immigrant visas for high-skilled foreigners educated in the United States. But most of his message — and all of the accompanying visual imagery — was a homily about the backlash against the influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century.

That backlash produced highly discriminatory legislation that established quotas according to national origins. Hailing the 1965 Act's abolishment of that system, Meacham urged understanding that "we've always grown stronger the more widely we've opened our arms … . If you shut doors, you may think you're securing yourself, but in fact you're locking yourself in, foreclosing possibilities and limiting growth."

I can't imagine a more concise expression of elite media opinion on immigration. The sentiment was warm and expansive. It was also unconstrained by any sense of limits. And it was devoid of factual reference to how far we have opened our doors since the 1960s, when the United States issued an average of 322,000 green cards every year. The annual average swelled to 449,000 in the 1970s, 734,000 in the 1980s, 901,000 in the 1990s, and nearly a million in the first decade of the new millennium.

Meacham also failed to note that the vast majority of green cards are issued on the basis of family ties to citizens and permanent residents — in disregard of the newcomers' skills or education. Even now, at a time of rampant unemployment, we continue to admit a million immigrants every year — many of them poorly educated and unskilled — with no regard for their effects on the labor market.

After quoting President Johnson's poetic remembrance as he signed the 1965 Act of "the joyous sound of long-ago voices" on Ellis Island, Meacham closed with this call to expand immigration even more: "We have it in our power to hear new voices right now, and we should do all we can to make room for them in a country that's made room for all of us", he said.

Meacham's effusiveness about the 1965 act contrasts with the rueful reaction of the late journalist and historian Theodore White. Writing 1984, White called it "noble, revolutionary, and one of the most thoughtless of the many acts of the Great Society".

A contemporary counterpoint to Meacham's enthusiasm came in a call last Friday to C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" program. There a caller who identified himself as an immigrant from Honduras offered this commentary on our immigration policy:

The country has lost completely control of their immigration process. Anyone who wants to come here comes and just breaks everything and demands everything and takes advantage of everything … . The government is not controlling and regulating that. Any country without borders, any country without control and regulation in the people that is coming to the country, has no future.

That is a concern we are not likely to hear on PBS. In that exclusive media space, commentaries on the remarkably complex and challenging issues of immigration rarely are anything but predictable, boring, and slanted to the clichéd sentimentality of our media elite. How ironic that Meacham appeared on a program called "Need to Know".