Simpson-Mazzoli: Twenty-One Years Later

“. . . [Y]ou take a look at what did and didn’t work, and frankly, when it came to enforcement, again, when you say that there’s no punishment, it’s one of those things that doesn’t create disincentive for somebody to cross the border.”

That was the post-mortem on the last major immigration legislation from one of the most visible salesman for what the Bush Administration hopes will be the next major immigration package.  In response to a question from me at the early morning briefing for White House reporters May 31, Press Secretary Tony Snow pronounced the Simpson-Mazzoli Bill of 1986 — which was supposed to stem the mounting tide of illegal immigration — a failure, notably in terms of enforcement and punishment for lawbreakers.  In so doing, President Bush’s top spokesman was attempting to distance Simpson-Mazzoli from the Comprehensive Reform Act of 2006, now before the U.S. Senate. 

Whether or not the current measure is an amnesty or whether the 390-plus page legislation takes steps to secure the border was not the point of my question.   It is inarguable that  Simpson-Mazzoli, which so many conservatives warned President Reagan was toothless and would lead to a new flood of illegal aliens, did almost precisely the opposite of what it was intended to do.  Hence, the need for fresh legislation just over 20 years after Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (the official name for Simpson-Mazzoli) and hailed it as “the most comprehensive reform of our immigration laws since 1952.”  Snow’s reply to my question May 31 was the closest thing to an official pronouncement of Simpson-Mazzoli as a failure.

Almost from the day he took office in 1981, President Reagan was calling on Congress to enact immigration reform.  As Reagan would say when he signed the bill that reached his desk five years later, “The problem of illegal immigration should not, therefore, be seen as a problem between the United States and its neighbors.  Our objective is only to establish a reasonable, fair, orderly, and secure system of immigration into this country and not to discriminate in any way against particular nations or people.”

Fine.  But the measure that reached his desk also included an amnesty to illegal immigrants from the bill.  One who recognized this was Rep. Bill McCollum (R.-Fla.), then a member of the House Judiciary Committee and now attorney general of Florida.  He warned that as many as 20 million illegal aliens would benefit from Simpson-Mazzoli because the would be entitled to bring their spouses and children, that as passage of the legislation with the amnesty could attract as many as 90 million new illegal immigrants to the U.S. in a decade.  On October 9, 1986, McCollum offered an amendment to Simpson-Mazzoli (H.RF. 3810) to strike the amnesty, calling it “slapping in the face” those who had come to the U.S. and become citizens through normal legal channels.

By a slim vote of 199 to 192, the House rejected the McCollum amendment to strike amnesty from the full legislation.  Among the 40 Republicans voting against the anti-amnesty provision were such conservative notables as Reps. Jack Kemp (N.Y.), Dan Lungren (Calif.), and Robert K. Dornan (Calif.).  Later, Simpson-Mazzoli was passed by both the House and the Senate.

Former Attorney General Ed Meese has recalled many times how Reagan did not like the amnesty provision and, in fact, “called it for what it was.”  Nevertheless, on November 6, 1986, Reagan signed the bill, which also included (as he noted in remarks made during the signing) “employer sanctions [and] other measures to increase enforcement of the immigration laws. . .” 

“The lesson from the 1986 experience is that such an amnesty did not solve the problem,” Meese wrote in HUMAN EVENTS earlier this year, “There was extensive document fraud and the number of people applying for amnesty far exceeded projections.  And there was a failure of political will to enforce new laws against employers.  After a brief slowdown, illegal immigration returned to high levels and continued unabated, forming the nucleus of today’s large population of illegal aliens.”

Meese’s view of a “failure of political will to enforce new laws” was seconded and elaborated upon by Tony Snow last week.  As he told me, “[I]f you take a look, for instance, at Simpson-Mazzoli, John, what was the punishment for crossing the border illegally?  There was none, zero.  For employers, the punishment ranged from a $250 fine to, I believe, a maximum of $2,000.  Basically, fairly insignificant measures against employer, when it came to knowingly hiring and sheltering illegals, and obviously, you did not have the sort of support at the border to try to reduce the flow.  You didn’t have the deployment of the National Guard forces — I mean, Border Patrol forces — I mean, Border Patrol units, and so on.”  [Specifically, Simpson-Mazzoli required $250 to $2000 for each alien hired; in a second offense the employer would be subject to a $200 to $5000 civil penalty per alien found; subsequent offenses called for $3000 to $10,000 fines and possibly a prison term for a “pattern or practice” of violations.)

In so doing, Snow made a virtual prophet out of McCollum and other critics of Simpson-Mazzoli.  Now, as the Administration calls for passage of a new immigration reform bill, one has to ask whether the Congress and the President in 2028 will have to address issues and problems that it enhanced and then demand yet another round of “sweeping” and “comprehensive” reform?

More precisely, are there sufficient disincentives for someone to cross the border in the new bill?  Or will it invite another flood of immigrants, just as Simpson-Mazzoli did?