Former Senator Sees Historical Parallels in Proposed Immigration Legislation

White House officials have been meeting with Senate Republicans to discuss immigration reform. Over on the House side, a bipartisan measure is already on the table. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde talked to former Senator Alan Simpson, who says that if history is any indication, the immigration battle to come on Capitol Hill is likely to be nasty and contentious.

Kitty Felde: It's been 21 years since Congress passed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, the landmark immigration reform bill that legalized more than two million undocumented immigrants.

The Simpson part of that bill is former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson. The Wyoming Republican says he wasn't an expert on immigration issues when he came to Capitol Hill in 1979. But he was appointed his freshman year to the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy anyway.

Senator Alan Simpson: I got stuck. I said to Baker, Howard Baker, my leader, I said, "why are you sticking me on it?" He said, "you're the junior member of the Senate, have a go at it."

Felde: One of his fellow commissioners was the man expected to introduce an immigration reform measure on the Senate side this year: Democrat Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. The Commission toured the country, trolling for ideas, and then proposed bipartisan legislation.

The bill allowed many who'd entered the U.S. illegally to become citizens. But it also denied citizenship to others who'd left and returned. And it cracked down on employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants. Simpson says debate over the bill was nasty then, and it'll be that way again.

Simpson: Anyone, anyone Democrat or Republican or independent or whatever that is presenting the most sensible, rational, national interest immigration bill that you and I can ever imagine will be called a bigot, a racist, and a xenophobe. Period.

Felde: Just like two decades ago, the main sticking point among lawmakers today is whether the millions of undocumented in this country already should be granted legal status of some kind. Critics label that "amnesty." Simpson says the word was even more loaded 20 years ago.

Simpson: That's why we called it legalization. We never used the word amnesty. We were closer to Vietnam in time than we are now. Oh, yeah. We learned fast; the word amnesty was a code word, we never used it.

Felde: Amnesty isn't the only repeat issue in the current immigration debate. There's also the challenge of creating a more secure social security card that is not a national ID card. We'll talk about that tomorrow.