Immigration reform is a topic of local, state, and national concern, but why would the Simpson Institute have particular interest in this topic? The namesake of the Alan K. Simpson Institute for Western Politics and Leadership was once at the forefront of the immigration debate. Almost thirty years have passed since the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed in 1986 in order to stem the tide of illegal immigration. Former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson co-sponsored the legislation together with Democratic Rep. Romano Mazzoli from Kentucky.
Neither lawmaker was a natural fit since this issue little affected their constituents, they were plunged into a position of leadership as chairs of their respective immigration subcommittees. Nevertheless, Senator Simpson had a passion for the issue. He recalled in a March 2014 Daily Beast interview that, as a young lawyer, he saw Hispanic workers flown into Park County, Wyoming to pick sugar beets. They were called “braceros” and by 1964, when an excess of “illegal” agricultural workers occurred, “Operation Wetback” deported them. Simpson recollects, “I helped a lot of them when they were screwed by car dealers, things like that.”
According to Simpson and Mazzoli, the 1986 act had three “legs.” The two politicians noted in a 2006 reflective Washington Post piece, “We quickly realized that if immigration reform was to work and be fair it had to be a ‘three-legged stool.’ If one leg failed, so would the entire bill.” “Leg one” was improved security against illegal crossings at the Mexican border and, for the first time, penalties imposed on employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers. “Leg two” was the H-2A Visa temporary program for agricultural workers, designed to ensure wage and workplace protections and not to be another exploitative “bracero” program. “Leg three” was “legalization,” by allowing some, but not all, undocumented aliens then living and working in the U.S. to regularize their unlawful status and begin to earn permanent residency and citizenship.
What is the legacy of the Immigration Reform and Control Act? Results depend on the eye of the beholder. Thanks to the act, about 3 million formerly undocumented immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. before 1982 were granted residency and a chance for U.S. citizenship. But, instead of slowing the flow of people across the border, illegal immigration accelerated. According to Simpson, “The bill didn’t work because they took the guts out the night before.” This refers to a more secure “identifier system” for workers that received fervent opposition from both the left and the right, who labeled it a national ID card. The security measure was pulled from the bill, effectively killing the legislation. 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. “The real irony for me,” Simpson said in the Washington Post interview, “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.”
For more information about the Simpson Institute’s immigration symposium, see our website at: ahc.uwyo.edu/symposium2014
-Leslie Waggener, Simpson Institute Archivist