The modern argument about immigration reform is tinged with racism on the edges. This seemed to be considerably less of a factor in the debate over Simpson-Mazzoli in the 1980s.
This may have been because the recommendations for the legislation were produced by a bipartisan commission especially created to study the issue.
Nonetheless, there were accusations of racism then as now.“When you run out of facts in Washington,” Former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson says, “you use emotion or fear or racism. This is a deft blend to pass or kill a bill. A couple of times in passion, in extremity, the opposition would say we were bigots, xenophobes. We’d say, ‘Hold on, you bastards, there’s nothing in our background to indicate that.’
“There’s no such thing as a temporary worker,” Simpson says, “No such thing as a guest worker. And the irony of it is that these people are coming here for a better life. I agree with that.
“But they are also leaving their families and coming to the United States. Once here, they may have a child. That child is a U.S. citizen. When it grows up, that child will apply to bring 10, 20 relatives to the states.
“In Australia, New Zealand, they require that immigrants have certain skills. They have skill points. We had those in our bill, we tried to put skill points in, but you can’t do it here.
“A guest worker comes here, they have a child, the child goes to the school system. They say, ‘You’re time is up.’ They say, ‘No, no.’ They go to the newspaper and the newspaper does a four-page spread on how their taking this hardworking family and child out of school.”
In an op-ed piece written last year about the fate of their bill, Simpson and Kentucky Democrat Romano Mazzoli wrote:
Let’s be honest. Effective immigration enforcement also affects political contributions on which both parties sadly must rely. These often come from employers notorious for hiring undocumented aliens. Administrations of both parties have not emphasized enforcement while, figuratively at least, the “help wanted” signs remain posted at the border and illegal entry continues apace.
Even with adequate funding for enforcement since 1986, we would still face immigration challenges. But the situation would not have reached this crisis state, and we would not be in the grips of this corrosive, divisive immigration debate today.
We believe that our three-legged stool approach is still relevant and workable if enforced vigorously. We commend the Senate which, in a worthy bipartisan effort, adopted such a framework this spring. The House bill is basically a tough “enforcement-only” measure.
As members of Congress bear in mind the duty of a sovereign nation to control its borders, we earnestly hope that the House and Senate will sit down, compromise, wring out the raw partisanship and find a way to send to President Bush—who has staked so much on enactment of solid immigration reform—a measure structured along the lines of our original bill.