When Will the Senate Learn From Its Immigration Mistakes?

As we watch the tragicomedy in the U.S. Senate on immigration reform, it behooves us to hark back to the last time the Senate debated major immigration reform. It was in 1985.

Why does it behoove us to learn this history? Because the promises being made today are exactly the same promises made back then. The bill that the Senate produced in 1985, which became law in 1986, was ambitiously titled the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). It is probably the most fraudulent legislation in American history, for it neither reformed nor controlled immigration. In fact, it actually exacerbated illegal immigration and, in many ways, directly led to today’s immigration crisis.

The IRCA is informally known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, named after its main author, Sen. Alan Simpson (R.-Wyo.), and Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D.-Ky.), who helped shepherd it through the House. Though neither Simpson nor Mazzoli is currently in office, a few key participants of that debate are still in office, such as Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.).

Introducing the bill on the Senate floor on Sept. 11, 1985, Simpson confidently assessed his long involvement in immigration issues:

Today I urge my colleagues to support S. 1200, which is the culmination of the substantive and political fine-tuning of a 6-year involvement in this issue…I wish all of my colleagues could have shared in that rich 6-year learning process, for I assure them that the longer one is in it the more one comes to understand that this is the approach we must take.1

The “approach” referred to the simultaneous enactment of employer sanctions and amnesty for most of the illegal aliens then living here. It eventually amnestied three million illegal aliens.

Twenty years later, today we have almost zero worksite enforcement and more than 10 million illegal aliens — but the Senate wants another amnesty. The Senate fraudulently calls it “earned legalization” or “comprehensive reform,” but it is amnesty nevertheless. By the Senate logic, a burglar who held on to stolen goods for a long time would get “earned ownership” of the goods.

Even in 1985, it was known that several hundred thousand illegal aliens were entering the country each year. Thus, Simpson acknowledged:

The United States cannot perform the most basic function of a sovereign nation, which is to control the entry of aliens across its borders, and to enforce whatever conditions are imposed on the aliens who we do allow to enter. Immigration to the United States is out of control….

Again, that is not a quote from the current Senate debate — that is a quote from the Senate debate from over 20 years ago. Immigration to the United States was out of control even then, and the Senate knew it, yet it initiated and passed a bill that eventually exacerbated the situation.

Per Simpson’s bill, the legalization (i.e., amnesty) of illegal aliens was to begin three years after the bill’s enactment into law. The intention was to institute adequate enforcement measures during those three years so as to discourage a further influx. But this was not enough for Kennedy, the putative guardian of those who are down-trodden and of those who have trodden down on the law. He wanted amnesty to begin right away. He insisted:

There simply is no valid reason to take the unnecessary and regrettable step backwards that this bill does in failing to immediately authorize a legalization program.

The bill required employers to ask for valid identification from new hires and contained sanctions against non-compliant employers. But Kennedy, in true liberal fashion, thought that would set off mass xenophobia across the country:

Mr. President [of the Senate], an equally important concern I have about this bill is that it must not become a vehicle for discriminatory actions against Hispanic Americans or other minority groups. Immigrants and undocumented aliens must not become scapegoats for the serious problems our country faces today…I believe we must be extremely cautious to avoid any legislative action that could raise the level of intolerance and discrimination in our society.

The senator’s jeremiad turned out to be misguided, nay, utterly and ridiculously wrong. Today, with millions of illegal aliens working for thousands of American employers, the xenophobia the senator feared has hardly made employers discriminate against even illegal aliens, let alone discriminate against Hispanic Americans.

In fact, we could argue that, to eradicate the scourge of illegal immigration, we should indeed “raise the level of intolerance and discrimination in our society” — intolerance of and discrimination against illegal aliens, that is. It is because that level is very low that we have employers who insouciantly hire illegal aliens.

Two days later, on Sept. 13, 1985, Kennedy again insisted on immediate amnesty for illegal aliens:

Mr. President, legalization is an essential corollary to the implementation of employer sanctions. As we institute new enforcement policies, legalization allows us to wipe the slate clean, to deal humanely and responsibly with the problems of the past as we begin to deal more effectively with future illegal migration.

Wiping the slate clean, dealing humanely and responsibly with the problems of the past, having effective measures against future illegal immigration — is this not the same rhetoric we are hearing today, 20 years later?

In fact, Kennedy was hardly alone in believing that amnesty was crucial. Here is what Sen. Chuck Grassley (R.-Iowa), who is still in office, said on the Senate floor during that 1985 debate:

The Immigration Reform and Control Act is a well-conceived product which may go far in achieving our badly needed reforms….The advantages of this proposal are apparent. Massive deportations are not only impractical but nearly impossible.

Yet today, 20 years later, the Senate is rehashing ad nauseam — the same defeatist nonsense about amnesty being the only practical way to handle the illegal aliens already here. How many times must the Senate make the same mistake before it learns anything? How long should we the taxpayers tolerate such an incorrigible body of public servants? Specifically, how long should conservatives abide such perfidious compromises as the McCain-Kennedy and the Hagel-Martinez pacts?

As Simpson explained in his opening remarks quoted earlier, his bill was the product of a six-year saga of public hearings and consultations. But the fact that even his bill, the product of such exhaustive excogitation, still failed to stem illegal immigration is definitive evidence of what happens when any enforcement measure is adulterated by an amnesty.

I was an eye witness to that amnesty. When it became law in 1986, I was here on a temporary visa and desperately needed a green card, since a green card allowed you to work for anyone and live here permanently. But, because I had come here legally, I was not eligible for a green card under that law. Yet 3 million illegal aliens were. Many of them could not speak a word of English, and would not have been able to tell the difference between the Declaration of Independence and rap lyrics, yet they were given green cards while I waited in line. I was among thousands of legal entrants who quietly endured that humiliation.

Now, as a naturalized American, I can freely point out the damage that the 1986 amnesty inflicted on our country. To aliens considering illegal entry, it meant that, given enough time, there would be another amnesty. Thus they continued to come. Today they are 10 million strong, are bold enough to march in our streets, and have turned our leaders into eunuchs. Only the House Republicans have fought off the castration.

Many of today’s vociferous advocates of another amnesty are those who were legalized under the 1986 amnesty and are now citizens, enfranchised with full political rights. They organize protests and prod elected officials to enact yet another amnesty. If you think such protests are formidable now, just imagine what would happen to the rule of law in America if we amnestied 10 million more illegal aliens and their relatives, amounting to 30 million or more altogether. Do you seriously expect them, when they obtain political rights, to support immigration enforcement?

And, given such a large constituency against immigration enforcement, do you seriously think that future politicians will even consider, let alone pass, strict enforcement measures?

So, you see, the current debate is not just another immigration debate. This could very well be the last chance for America to change course and have an immigration policy that means what it says.

Unlike the Senate, the House has learned from the 1986 amnesty. Hence its enforcement-first approach, exemplified by the bill it passed in December. It is the right approach, and the only approach that will make the illegal aliens return home on their own. After all, since they came here on their own, we should make them leave here on their own. Lax enforcement induced their influx — and strict enforcement will induce their exodus.

In retrospect, one of the most ironically prophetic comments during the 1985 debate came from Grassley:

If we do not act now, it may be another 30 years before we return to the issue of immigration control. By that time the problem is guaranteed to be beyond congressional solutions.

Well, they acted — with a measure that made the problem worse. And we did not have to wait 30 years — it has only been 20 years. Moreover, the senator was only partly right when he said it would be beyond congressional solutions. If today’s Senate debate is any indication, the immigration problem is certainly beyond senatorial solutions. But the House already has a solution. So it is time the Senate listened to the chamber that has a solution.

1 All passages quoted here are from Congressional Record (1985), pp. 23315-23723.