IRCA's 30th Anniversary: What Lawmakers Were Saying When They Finally Reached Agreement

By Jerry Kammer on October 17, 2016

On October 15, 1986, the New York Times announced that negotiators for the House and Senate had agreed on "a landmark immigration bill that would prohibit the hiring of illegal aliens and offer legal status to several million illegal aliens already in the United States."

As we now know, nearly three million people would receive legal status, aka amnesty, as a result of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. But the effort to stop future illegal immigration would badly fail. Instead of containing the influx, IRCA — also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli bill for its principal sponsors in the Senate and House — would actually stimulate it. Despite its admirable intentions, it has left a legacy of bitter disagreement on how to deal with an "undocumented" population that now exceeds 11 million.

Given that enormous gap between congressional intention and legislative effect, it is interesting to look back at what lawmakers were saying 30 years ago, as they put the bill on course to be signed by President Reagan. Here are some samples.

Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), principal sponsor in the Senate. Acknowledging that the bill would be vulnerable to fraudulent claims of eligibility, Simpson said, "I am certain we will see a cottage industry in rent receipts and W-2 Forms." Asserting a need for Congress to act, Simpson said, "By doing nothing we perpetuate the status quo." That, he said, would be "reprehensible." Addressing those who would be eligible for amnesty either because they had lived in the United States for five years or worked 90 days in agriculture, he said, "It's going to be a one-shot deal. Don't be frightened. Come forward. But this will be the last opportunity."

Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D-Ky.), principal sponsor in the House. Referring to the five years of rancorous debate that preceded the agreement, he said, "They say a cat has nine lives. This bill has no more lives. It cannot pop up out of any more graves. ... It's now or never. It's not a perfect bill, but it's the least imperfect bill we will ever have before us." Mazzoli said he didn't "want to be a Pollyana about this thing." He acknowledged that print shops "would crop up in back yards" to produce fraudulent documents in an attempt to gain amnesty.

Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), broker of the key amendment to provide amnesty for those who had worked 90 days in the fields. "It is time to stop deploring the status quo." Describing the bill as "a gamble", he added, "Nobody's certain it's going to work. But everyone was certain that the present situation is just terrible. So if it doesn't work, we'll have to go back to the drawing board."

Rep. Dan Lungren, (R-Calif.). All the parties have had to compromise. ... It's the best we could do. ... This is our time to stand up and be counted."

Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas). Criticizing amnesty as unfair to those who obeyed immigration laws, he admonished the bill's advocates: "You're going to say, 'People who came here illegally are going to be given preference over you.'''

Sen. Simpson. On the special agricultural amnesty: ''I would never have suggested or recommended. But it became quite clear [it] was necessary for final passage.'' Sizing up the entire bill, Simpson said, "It's a monstrous s.o.b. ... but it will be as sure as hell a lot better than anything we've got now."