A Tribute to Otis Graham

By Jerry Kammer on November 28, 2017

Otis L. Graham, Jr., founding chairman of the Center for Immigration Studies Board, died recently at his home in California. I would like to write a few words of tribute for this remarkable man, for whom I will always feel respect, admiration, and affection.

Otis Graham was part of a remarkable Southern family that was steeped in the best traditions of American scholarship and liberalism patriotism. His late brother Hugh was a history professor and a scholar of the civil rights movement. Brother Fred was a reporter for the New York Times and CBS News before becoming chief correspondent for Court TV. Otis was a graduate of Yale who went on to earn his doctorate in history at Columbia. He was a professor at the University of North Carolina and then the University of California at Santa Barbara. Among his many honors, he was named a Guggenheim Fellow and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

Otis served as an artillery officer in the Marines but later opposed the Vietnam War. A strong believer in the struggle for civil rights, he became a member of the NAACP. His concern about the environmental effects of population growth propelled him to join Zero Population Growth and influenced his efforts to limit immigration. They were central to his work at the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

 Otis once observed that "immigration is an emotion-generating topic that puts some people, even scholars, into an intemperate frame of mind." He identified himself as "a liberal restrictionist". At times he became frustrated with the difficulty of carrying that banner. He was alarmed at the poisonous work of the intolerant and hyperventilating wing of American liberalism that smears every effort to limit immigration as a racist attack.

In his 2008 memoir, Immigration Reform and America's Unchosen Future, Otis reflected poignantly and proudly of working for reduced immigration "without disparaging immigrants or their cultures, reserving condemnation for our own incompetent and shortsighted public officials and ethnocentric lobbyists rather than the immigrants caught in the mighty currents of globalization." Of his work with CIS and FAIR, he wrote: "Immigration reform brought me into association with people who had glimpsed a problem ahead for our nation and our children and made time in their lives to try to steer the nation in a different and better direction, at the cost of attacks on their character and values."

Otis Graham was a remarkable man on many levels. He was one of the brave cohort of contrarian liberals who have lamented the liberal disavowal of the concerns — for American workers, environmental sustainability, and national cohesion — that have long been central to the effort to restrict immigration. In the superheated climate of the national immigration debate, advocacy for immigration limits is a difficult job. He fulfilled it very well. Hail and farewell, Otis Graham. Ave atque vale.