'86 immigration law casts shadow

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush goes to Capitol Hill today to push for the revival of a comprehensive immigration bill, he will have to wrestle with the ghost of a 1986 law that promised to solve the problem of illegal immigration.

That law banned hiring illegal immigrants, provided new resources for enforcement along the Mexican border and offered legal status, or amnesty, to several million illegal immigrants.

In the current debate, which stalled last week when the latest legislative proposal failed to clear a procedural hurdle, senators of both parties point to the 1986 law as an example of what not to do.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said he regrets voting for the 1986 measure.

"I thought then that taking care of 3 million people illegally in the country would solve the problem once and for all," Grassley said. "I found out, however, if you reward illegality, you get more of it. Today, as everybody has generally agreed, we have 12 million people here illegally."

The 1986 law was a product of more than five years' work by Sen. Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, and Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli, a Kentucky Democrat. Both left Congress more than a decade ago.

"I was here in Congress in 1986," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. "I heard all the promises of the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. None of them were true, and 3 million people got amnesty. There was no border security to speak of, no employer sanctions to speak of, and there was no enforcement."

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said, "The American people were sold a bill of goods. It didn't work. We got an amnesty, and we got no enforcement. That is why people are so distrustful now."

One of Bush's "first principles," as described in a White House planning document, is, "Do not repeat the 1986 failure." He and other supporters of the current Senate bill say that it puts enforcement first.

Bush said yesterday that he was confident the bill would become law, despite the roadblock it hit last week and continued intense opposition from many conservatives in Congress and at the grassroots level.

"I'll see you at the bill signing," the president told journalists traveling with him in Bulgaria.

In a letter to Bush yesterday, Senate Democratic leaders said they were "committed to Senate passage of an immigration bill this year." Bush must exert stronger leadership and deliver more votes, they said.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he would try again on the immigration bill if the president and Senate Republican leaders showed "new cooperation and a clear way forward."

Supporters of the Senate bill acknowledge that the nation's experience with the 1986 law has made their job harder.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the current bill is "dramatically different from the 1986 act" because it places more emphasis on enforcement and more conditions on the granting of legal status.

Many senators are skeptical. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, said he supported amnesty in 1986 "based on the very same promises we hear today." That law did not work, Byrd said, and "I will not vote to make the same mistake twice."

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