Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Former lawmakers impart lessons from the 1986 immigration battle

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Former California GOP Congressman Dan Lungren has advice for colleagues tackling immigration

It’s been a quarter-century since Congress passed comprehensive immigration reform. Veterans of that legislative battle have some ideas about why it didn’t completely work and whether the bill currently being debated in the Senate will finally solve the challenge of illegal immigration.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee last week began taking up hundreds of amendments to an 844-page bill, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein asked her colleagues to consider the gravitas of their decision making.

"For those of us sitting at this table," she said, "this is the only chance we’re going to have to reform what is a very broken system, and to bring a lot of people who have worked very hard in this country out of the shadows."

Feinstein wasn’t on Capitol Hill for the 1986 debate. But fellow Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa was a freshman Republican on the Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee. Weighing in on the current debate, he told Feinstein he has concerns about the measure under consideration: "Unfortunately, this bill looks too much like the 1986 bill, which failed to take care of the problems we’re now trying to solve."

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 had broad bi-partisan support. It passed both  the GOP-led Senate and Democrat-controlled House of Representatives by easy margins. 

Former California Congressman Dan Lungren worked on the bill when he was the top Republican on the House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee. He says it was a “balanced” measure with a legalization program for those who had been in our country for a significant period of time and had really put down roots in the community. As a counter, he says, "you would have future enforcement of a serious nature such that we would not be confronted by this question in the future."

And therein lies the problem: a quarter of a century later, Congress is still wrestling with what to do about a continuing flood of undocumented immigrants. Lungren says one reason the ‘86 bill failed was that it did nothing to help farmers who needed workers.

"In California, we’d experienced that fact that we relied ever more on foreign labor in our fields, working legally or illegally, depending on whether we had a program," he recalls. The new Senate bill includes temporary visas for 112,000 agricultural workers a year.  

But Lungren says there was another problem with the 86 bill: "The enforcement side was never carried out."

The ‘86 immigration law is known as the Simpson-Mazzoli act. The co-sponsors were Democratic Congressman Ron Mazzoli of Kentucky and Republican Senator Alan Simpson from Wyoming. Simpson says the bill contained two kinds of enforcement: at the border and at the workplace. For the workplace, there was supposed to be a mandatory, tamper-proof identification card for everyone who wanted a job in America. Civil libertarians exploded.

Simpson says the bill included language stipulating what they were suggesting was not a national ID card. "Well, hell, nobody believed that," he says. "And so they just began to rant."

The late Democratic Congressman Ed Roybal of Los Angeles said, with the ID card, America faced the danger of “ending up like Nazi Germany.”  The proposal was dropped, but Congress left intact the requirement that companies check whether their workers had proper papers. Simpson says employers and the Chamber of Commerce started "bitching," saying they weren't "the policemen of America." So workplace enforcement went by the wayside.

The current immigration bill requires all employers to use an updated version of the electronic worker verification system known as E-verify. Employers face fines of several thousand dollars per unauthorized employee. 

That leaves the border. Senator Dianne Feinstein says 650 miles of border fencing is already in place. "I have no doubt," she says, "as to this nation’s commitment to enforce this border. And we have shown it over the last decade." 

That doesn’t satisfy Grassley and other GOP lawmakers who want border security to reach benchmarks of success before any other provisions of immigration reform go into effect. Grassley insists no one "can dispute that this bill is legalization first, enforcement later."

Critics say demanding absolute border control is a delaying tactic. But that’s where the current fight over immigration is headed: when will the border be secure enough to finally close the door on illegal immigration?

Click here for our survey of where every member of California's Congressional delegation stands on immigration reform.

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