The Immigration Reform Act of 1986

This was my final term paper for a Political Science class in college, dated March 6, 1989. The Immigration Reform Act of 1986 was a five-year effort to make sweeping changes in United States immigration policy - the first since the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. For the first time, U.S. employers were seen as much of the problem with immigration, and could be fined, or even face jail terms, for knowingly hiring illegal aliens. (Congress and the Nation, Vol.I, p.222) President Reagan, though not a key player in the bill, was the catalyst for action by making several proposals to Congress in 1981 on ways to fight the rising number of illegal aliens coming to the United States. Congress responded to his recommendations by sending the matter to their Judiciary Committees. Extensive hearings were held by immigration subcommittees from both houses, and it was determined some action should be taken to curb the tide of illegal aliens crossing the border. The problem was many illegal aliens were coming to the U.S. and gaining employment from large agricultural businesses. The hiring of these foreigners was seen by Congress as encouraging more immigration by people in other countries expecting to come to the U.S. to find employment. The matter was placed in the hands of Alan K. Simpson (R-WY) who chaired the Senate Immigration and Refugee Policy Subcommittee, and Ramano L. Mazzoli (D-KY) who chaired the House Immigration, Refugees, and International Law Subcommittee.

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Simpson and Mazzoli worked together on the bill and introduced it into Congress on March 17, 1982. The Senate subcommittee and Judiciary committee overwhelmingly approved the measure, with Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), ranking Democrat, casting the one dissenting vote. He expressed concern the bill would spur discrimination against hispanics. He convinced the committee to adopt an amendment enabling illegal aliens who had been in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 1982 or before to become permanent residents. It was a compromise to Simpson, who wanted President Reagan’s proposed legal status for those in the U.S. before 1978. Organized labor also showed an interest, and lobbied committee members persistently for an amendment concerning hiring of foreign workers during a labor dispute. (Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1982, p.406) The committee adopted by voice vote a provision barring the hiring of foreign workers during strikes or labor disputes.

The House immigration subcommittee approved the bill unanimously after adopting several amendments. Dan Lungren (R-Ca), the ranking Republican, was the most vocal Republican on the committee. He was being lobbied heavily by conservative businessmen in his district who were concerned they may be left with no help in the fields. Lungren looked to protect the businesses, and the small ethnic makeup of his district allowed him to do it without worrying about the growing hispanic opposition to the bill.

The hispanic community were the most outspoken opponents to the bill. The hispanic population, led by Edward Roybal (D-Ca), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, bitterly fought the bill – claiming it would spur discrimination against all non-white workers. They claimed employers would be afraid to hire employees who looked foreign, and said the bill would not keep illegal aliens out of the country. Tony Coehlo (D-Ca) quickly joined the opposition. Nearly one fourth of his constituency were hispanic, and he voiced concerns they would be adversely affected: “It is much easier to discriminate against someone who has dark hair, dark eyes, and dark skin,” (Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1982, p.409) he said in a speech against the bill. A surprising alliance occurred between the hispanics and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which was concerned the legislation would force employers to become involved in immigration policy.

California and New York congressmen representing highly ethnic districts were most active on the bill. Tony Coehlo and Dan Lungren were joined by other California congressmen who involved themselves such as Howard Berman, Leon Panetta, George Miller, Ed Roybal, and Sen. Pete Wilson. California congressmen, as well as others representing states in the Southwest, had a unique problem of trying to represent areas of high ethnic makeup which also contained areas of large agricultural industry. They had to walk a fine line to please both sides of their constituencies. New York congressmen representing high ethnic areas quickly made their concerns known as well. Robert Garcia, Charles Schumer, Hamilton Fish, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan were among the New York congressmen active on the bill.

Agricultural growers kept a close watch on the legislation, and lobbied for several amendments. They, like the businessmen in Lungren’s district, were concerned the bill would hurt their businesses, raise produce prices, and take away many of their employees. The agricultural industry won major battles through amendments providing legal status for undocumented workers already in the country, allowing foreigners into the U.S. to do agricultural work, and requiring law enforcement officers to obtain search warrants before searching fields for illegal aliens.

The bill (S 2222) looked well on its way to becoming law when it readily passed the Senate 80-19 on August 17, 1982 with only two amendments from the floor. Its respective counterpart in the House (HR 7357) passed the Judiciary Committee in September, 1982. But time was not on the side of the measure, with nearly 300 amendments filed and only days left for discussion, it died in the closing hours of a lame duck session. Mazzoli vowed to re-introduce the bill, but Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neill (D-Mass) was being pressured by hispanic groups to keep the bill off the floor. (Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1983, p.287) He would have his chance a year later.

In April of 1983 the bill was re-introduced into the immigration subcommittees of both houses. The Senate Judiciary committee passed the bill (S 529) 13-4 after only a half hour of debate, but the House subcommittee met for six hours and processed 36 amendments. The bills were essentially the same as the ones the preceding year, with a few minor amendments apparently to appease constituency and special interest groups.

Sen. Kennedy remained firmly against the bill, claiming it was discrimination. He was also very much against the sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. Opposition to the bill was non-partisan in Congress. The liberal Democrats believed it spurred discrimination, the conservative Republicans thought it was too lenient on illegal aliens already in the country, and Westerners believed it could not work and would disrupt their states.

The Senate passed the bill on May 18, 1983 on a vote of 76-18, but not before making concessions to agricultural growers and civil rights groups. Sen. James A. McClure (R-Ida), representing a highly agricultural state, won approval of the amendment requiring law enforcement officers to obtain search warrants before searching fields for illegal aliens. The Senate also passed a Kennedy-Simpson amendment increasing judicial review rights for those denied political asylum in the U.S. Civil rights groups, in return for the amendment, agreed not to lobby against another section of the bill regarding deportation. (Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1983, p.289)

At the same time, the House Judiciary Committee took up debate on the measure. The bulk of their debate was on legalization and employer sanctions. There was disagreement on when the amnesty date should be, but it was eventually decided on a 15-14 vote to remain with Jan.1, 1982 – as the Senate had done. The committee approved by an 18-10 vote an amendment offered by Thomas Kindness (R-Oh) which restricted employer sanctions only if being investigated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). This was strongly opposed by conservatives, but was a victory by the Chamber of Commerce which had been lobbying for such a change in the bill.

On October 4, 1983, Speaker O’Neill announced he would not bring the bill to the House floor in 1983. He cited intense pressure from hispanic groups, little support from his liberal constituency, and his concern President Reagan may veto it to win support from the hispanic community. After numerous speeches and editorials lambasting him for his decision, and a meeting with Simpson who assured him President Reagan would sign it, O’Neill said the House would take up the measure in 1984. It was, in fact, taken up in early 1984, and passed after seven days of debate. The conferences of the House and Senate met for over three weeks, but were unable to come to an agreement. The measure died again.

Committed to passing the legislation, and convinced there was a general consensus that reform was needed, Simpson and Mazzoli looked to introduce it a third time in 1985. Their prime concern was rallying enough votes from their parties to pass the bill, and in Simpson’s case, to ensure the President Reagan’s signature. The Senate passed the bill (S 1200), which still closely resembled the original legislation, for the third time in September, 1985 but it was again hung up in the House until July of 1986. The Judiciary Committee could not agree on certain farm worker provisions, and took six months to work out a compromise. The disagreement nearly killed the bill again. Eventually a compromise was drafted by Reps. Schumer, Berman, and Panetta which gave resident status to foreign laborers who could prove they had worked at least 60 days between May 1985 and May 1986. The bill was then sent to five other House committees for revision, due to its broad nature. On October 9, 1986 the House passed HR 3810 with a vote of 230-166. This time, five of the eleven members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus voted to approve the bill. They were convinced they had won enough change – through amendments – to protect their interests. As Bill Richardson (D-NM), a member of the caucus, said, “I think it is better than nothing. It was the last gasp for legalization to take place in a humane way.” (Congressional Quarterly, October 18, 1986, p.2595)

Unlike the 1984 attempt, the House and Senate conferences met the next day, and within a week both Houses had adopted the conference report. President Reagan told congressional leaders he would sign the bill, even though it did not include some of his proposals, and contained a more lenient amnesty program than he wanted. (Congressional Quarterly, October 11, 1986, p.2571) The Senate was ready to vote on the bill on October 16, when Phil Gramm (R-Tx) caused a delay with a speech criticizing the cost of the farm worker provisions. Representing a major agricultural state, he did not want to see the farm worker provisions be eliminated later due to budget. Farmers, many of whom were in his state, wanted the provision to ensure their labor force. The Senate adopted his idea 75-16. The next day the Senate voted 69-21 to invoke cloture – to insure a vote on the measure. Later that day on October 17, 1986, the Senate voted 63-34 to approve the conference report, while the House also voted to approve it, 238-173. The farm worker provision seemed to appease many Democrats in the House. The 1984 version of the bill split Democrats 125 for and 138 against. This time Democrats approved the bill 168 for and 61 against – while the only major change was the farm worker provision.

The reason why Alan Simpson, representing conservative Wyoming with no immigration problem, and Ramano Mazzoli, representing a similar district in Kentucky, worked so hard on this bill was now apparent: their names were on a major and prestigious piece of legislation. As Simpson said the day it passed, “On balance you have the very absolute quintessential immigration reform.” (Congressional Quarterly, Oct. 18, 1986, p.2595) Their careers were immediately furthered for the work they put into this legislation. Simpson, for example, proved his rallying skills so well throughout the life of the bill, he became the Senate Republican whip. The bill is now known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act.

After five years and three apparent deaths in Congress, Simpson and Mazzoli had their way. It was a bill dominated by special interest groups and political maneuvering. From the original draft, there were over 300 attempted amendments on the bill. Many congressmen wanted to be a part of the landmark legislation, while many fought against it to protect their constituency. Eventually, many parts of the bill were compromised to save face, and it was satisfactory to most parties involved.

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1 Comment on The Immigration Reform Act of 1986

  1. Did President Reagan veto the 1986 amnesty bill at any time?

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