The Anguish of Alan Simpson, Tragic Hero of Immigration Reform

The folksy Republican on how tough passing a bill was 30 years ago and how much harder it is today now that his namesake law is remembered as a failure.

Few lawmakers serving in Congress remember the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Designed to stem the tide of illegal immigration, it was passed by a Democratic House and Republican Senate and signed into law by President Reagan. Former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson co-sponsored the legislation together with Democratic Rep. Romano Mazzoli from Kentucky. Neither lawmaker seemed an especially natural fit for an issue with little direct impact on their constituents, but as chairs of their respective immigration subcommittees, they were thrust together into a position of leadership.

“Nobody on the border could touch this stuff,” Simpson recalled in a phone conversation Wednesday, responding to a question about his early involvement. The thinking was he and his Democratic counterpart had less at stake and therefore more freedom to maneuver. “Tag, you’re it,” Simpson says. Jokes aside, the folksy, blunt-talking Republican had a real affinity and passion for the issue. As a young lawyer, he saw Hispanic workers flow into Park County, Wyoming to pick sugar beets. They were called braceros, and in the early ‘60s, “Operation Wetback” came in and cleared them out. “I helped a lot of them when they were screwed by car dealers, things like that.”

President Carter had named Simpson to a Select Commission on Immigration created in 1979 and later chaired by Father Theodore Hesburgh, now president emeritus of Notre Dame. “We did our work, we had hearings, we went at it,” says Simpson, laying the moral groundwork for confronting the difficult issue of millions of people in the U.S. illegally.

In 1981 with Reagan elected president and a Republican Senate in place, it was time to move. The Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration and Reform Act was introduced, and Simpson approached House Speaker Tip O’Neill about holding joint House-Senate hearings on immigration. The Speaker was puzzled at first, Simpson recalls, pointing out that he was a Republican and Mazzoli a Democrat. “What difference does that make?” Simpson retorted. “Okay, shoot the works,” the Speaker said, giving his blessing. More than a dozen hearings followed, building consensus in the House and Senate.

It was a model for bipartisan congressional problem solving, but the legislation that resulted is widely viewed as a failure—part of the problem, not the solution. It built on a three-legged approach—controlling the borders, increasing the number of visas for agricultural workers, and offering “earned legalization” to immigrants who had illegally entered the country before 1982. Instead of slowing the flow of people across the border, illegal immigration accelerated, and the politics of reform stretched to a breaking point. The cross-party alliances that had worked so well in the ‘80s crashed and burned as an effort launched by President Bush together with Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain in 2006 imploded in the face of grassroots opposition.

“The bill didn’t work because they took the guts out the night before,” says Simpson. What he’s referring to was a more secure “identifier system” for workers that the left and the right (the ACLU and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist) labeled a national ID card, uniting both sides of the political spectrum in fervent opposition. A speech by California Democrat Ed Roybal calling a national ID card a slippery slope toward Nazi Germany stunned the bill’s backers and set off what Simpson describes as “a symphony of hysteria.” The security measure was pulled from the bill, effectively killing the legislation. Without some means to protect employers from hiring illegals, the bill would get no support from the business community.

In 1986, Simpson appealed to Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Moakley, chairman of the Rules committee and one of the era’s legendary fixers. “He said, ‘What’s up kid,’ I was 50 years old,” Simpson recalls. Moakley took what was a dead bill, inserted some language about a study, as Simpson remembers it, bringing the legislation back to life “only without any teeth. Once that happened, people went on with their business.” The bill became law, and soon a robust black market flourished to create fraudulent documents and fake IDs for illegal immigrants seeking work.

In the aftermath of the bill’s passage, there were raids as the federal government cracked down on employers that knowingly hired illegals, but enforcement lagged, and nothing really changed. As the debate continues in Congress with the expectation there could be legislation this session, the focus has shifted from where it was when Simpson led the fight. “The real irony for me,” he says, “is that congressional Republicans are talking about retinal scans and fingerprints, and I haven’t seen a single article about a slippery slope to a national ID.”

The concept of a more secure identifier was relatively novel then, and susceptible to fear mongering. Reform advocates envisioned a charge card “like Macy’s,” says Simpson, or some document that would have the mother’s maiden name on the back. A person wouldn’t carry this ID at all times, only when applying for work, but just the suggestion of a national ID in the mid-‘80s was enough to generate panic on the left and the right.

“The best thing that happened, 3 million people came out of the shadows,” says Simpson. “We called it legalization. There was no amnesty.” It was too close to the Vietnam War. President Carter had given amnesty to young men who had fled to Canada to avoid Vietnam, and it was a flash word. Still, both critics and advocates remember the ‘86 bill as amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants. Today’s reformers are fighting the same semantic battle, insisting that legality and an earned path to citizenship are not amnesty.

“They (critics of reform) think these people are expendable,” says Simpson. “If you think America is good to them, you’re crazy as hell. They’re used and exploited and they work for four bucks an hour. It’s a pretty sick country that uses human beings like this. They sit on corners waiting for some guy to come by to get the gardening done at his estate. It’s a sad situation; it’s not pleasant to watch.”