Former Senator Simpson Recalls Tussle with Justice Over Immigration

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President Reagan was well into his second and last term in office the last time Congress tackled immigration reform. Now President Bush is in the same place, aiming to make progress on the same issue. How much influence can he exert over Congress? KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde concludes her conversation with former Senator Alan Simpson, a veteran of that last Congressional foray into immigration reform.

Kitty Felde: President Bush has made immigration reform a top priority. As the former governor of Texas, Mr. Bush knows firsthand the challenges that border states face when millions of undocumented workers flood over the border.

Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming was the co-author of landmark immigration reform Congress passed in 1986. He says it helped that another former governor of a border state was in the White House at the time – California's Ronald Reagan.

Senator Alan Simpson: I'd call Reagan and I'd say, "Where are you?" and he'd say, "Well, what's up?" and I'd say, "Can you still stick with me?" and he'd say, "You bet. I'm right here." And man, that made all the difference, all the way through.

Felde: The Simpson-Mazzoli bill passed by a 2-to-1 margin in the House and Senate; but the battle wasn't over. Alan Simpson says there was pressure on President Reagan to veto the measure. It came from Attorney General Ed Meese and others in the Justice Department.

Simpson: So one day, Meese said "I think we need to talk" and I went up to Justice Department all by my little self. And there were assistants and deputy assistants and I said, "I just want to tell you all something. If you're thinking of vetoing, you're never going to see a damn thing come out of the U.S. Senate that has Justice Department tied to it. I'm sick of this crap. The President's on my side and you bastards..." – it was the most lyrically obscene thing I've ever ever addressed.

Felde: The Justice Department backed down, and President Reagan signed the bill.

Officials from the current White House have been meeting behind closed doors with leading Republican senators to discuss proposals that will pass muster with the more conservative members of the party. Former Senator Alan Simpson is optimistic that Congress will be able to pass some sort of immigration reform this year.

Simpson: I think that you got some pretty savvy people there in both parties who know that the American people are expecting something needs to be done.

Felde: As far as Alan Simpson's concerned, he's happy to be watching the current battle over immigration reform in his home state of Wyoming – a safe 2,000 miles away from Washington.