The timing was planned exquisitely. Only a week after the last U.S. presidential primaries had ended, the House of Representatives began debate on one of the most emotional and political issues on its docket—illegal immigration. House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O’Neill scheduled a full week for floor discussion—reflecting not only the controversy that surrounded the legislation but the nearly 70 amendments that had been attached to it. Said Representative Trent Lott (R-Miss.): “The problem of immigration is a ticking time bomb that must be dealt with now. It is not going to go away. It is not going to get better. It’s going to get worse.”
Still, the bill provoked sharp exchanges on whether its provisions would achieve what its authors intended—restore Washington’s control of U.S. borders. It is commonly conceded that millions of aliens, mostly from Latin America, routinely flout current immigration laws to flood illegally into the United States. To prevent that, Republican Senator Alan Simpson and House Democrat Romano Mazzoli drafted a bill that tried to strike a balance between compassion and realism.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act, as it is formally called, offers a general amnesty to aliens who could prove that they were U.S. residents since January, 1982. They would be granted either temporary or permanent status, depending on negotiations with
the Senate, which has already approved a slightly different version. At the same time, the measure would provide sanctions against employers of four or more workers who knowingly hire illegals. Penalties would begin with warnings, then escalate to fines. But the House last week rejected one key element of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill: it removed criminal penalties for repeat offenders. Some supporters of the bill lamented the decision, contending that only the threat of stiff punishment would deter employees.
Still, opposition to the bill was broad and deep. The powerful Hispanic lobby claimed that the legislation’s proposed sanctions would inevitably cause employers to discriminate against Latinos rather than risk putting an illegal on the payroll. To guard against that bias, the House adopted an amendment by Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that would specifically prohibit discrimination based on national origin and create a panel to adjudicate disputes. But opponents doubted that the amendment could be enforced. Said Amoldo Torres, executive director of the League of Unit-
ed Latin American Citizens: “They have relieved themselves of the guilt of this bill with this amendment. They said, ‘We have to give you something,’ and this is it.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also lobbied heavily against the legislation, contending that illegal aliens provide a needed pool of cheap labor which allows U.S. business to stay competitive in world markets. Forcing employers to pay union wages in agricultural and other industries would ultimately raise costs to consumers and destroy more jobs than it would create. In response, Simpson-Mazzoli offered to ease the entry of foreign temporary workers to help farmers harvest their crops.
Civil libertarians expressed concern that shifting the onus for identifying illegal immigrants to employers might lead to the creation of a national identity card. And the use of cards, they contended, would lead to intrusive invasions of privacy. Forged documents are readily available to aliens, but an amendment adopted last week requires the federal government to set up a telephone hotline to validate social security numbers. However, the House specifically projected legislation that would have authorized a three-year search for a more tamper-proof ID system.
Still, other critics insisted that even with tough sanctions the bill was unlikely to succeed. Some southern states, including Florida and California, already prohibit hiring illegals. But the effect of those laws is negligible. Still, defenders of the bill seemed prepared to consider almost any compromise to win its passage. They say they are convinced that even an emasculated bill would constitute an advance. Said House Democrat Peter Rodino: “The problem is such that we cannot stay with the status quo.”Added a Washington Post editorial: “None of the bill’s opponents has a plan to take account of undocumented aliens here already and to enable the nation to take control of its borders.
Everyone should understand the alternative to this bill...is nothing.”
By week’s end it appeared that the House agreed. Against all odds, lawmakers are wrestling with an issue fraught with political, social and economic implications. The final result will likely be less than Simpson and Mazzoli hoped for and more than its many antagonists wished. But in an election year it was probably as much as anyone could have expected.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.