Alan Simpson is known today as the former senator most devoted to deficit reduction. But Simpson first made his mark as the Republican half of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill that became the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That law now haunts the current immigration debate. Simpson, 81, and still famous for his colorful language, talked to National Journal about immigration. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ Everybody says we have to learn the lessons of 1986. What are those lessons?
SIMPSON We fixed up a system, and we never used the word “amnesty.” We used “legalization.” It was timed so close to the Vietnam War, if we had ever allowed the word “amnesty” to enter the debate, we’d have been eaten by rats right there. The thing didn’t work, because the key to it all was a more secure identifier. We discussed what those things would be—a slide card like you use at Dillards or Woodies or whatever. Or was it a revised Social Security card? Oh my God, that would cost billions. Was it the maiden name of the person’s mother on the back of some document?
The lefties suddenly began to chant the phrase from the ACLU that this was a slippery slope to a national ID card. Then Grover Norquist and his happy band of wandering warriors in their white robes suddenly passed out a bar code. I’ll never forget that. It was applied to your wrists like they did in Nazi Germany. So you had the Left and the Right, the extremes, talking about a national ID card. They jerked out the more secure identifier. But you can’t do what we expected to do with just sanctions against employers. You needed the three-legged stool: legalization and enforcement and some kind of identifier. It just gutted the bill totally, except that 2.9 million people came forward into a legal status out of the dark, which pleased me greatly.
NJ Is that “three-legged stool” still the imperative?
SIMPSON It never changes. You use all sorts of phrases—illegal, undocumented. It becomes a gymnastics of language so you don’t piss off the Right and piss off the Left. You have to use shaded words. It’s madness, but that’s the way it works. Anyway, they are talking about the right kind of thing now, giving these people some kind of status. Anyone [undocumented] in this country is here and being exploited. Terribly exploited. Used. Expendable.
NJ Your party has hardened on immigration. Do you have advice for Republicans?
SIMPSON I remember when Bob Dole ran [for president]. Suddenly I get word from his staff telling me to craft a Republican immigration bill for Bob’s campaign. I said, “Screw you.” There is no such thing. You either have a bipartisan bill or you don’t have anything.
NJ You’ve said there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary worker.
SIMPSON It was the same in every country on Earth. The Turks came to Germany as temporary workers and they became embedded in the country. Whoever came to France, whoever came to Greece as temporary workers, they adhere to the body of the culture; they have children, and they join organizations, and they work hand in hand with others.
NJ President Reagan believed in amnesty; how important was his support in 1986?
SIMPSON He couldn’t have been more glorious an ally. His people, especially in the Justice Department, were not with me at all. [Reagan aide] Marty Anderson—he began to drool at the jaws about anything I was doing. It was the mark of Cain. You can’t believe the shit that went on from the Far Right. But Reagan always told me, “I’m from California and I know what kind of flak you’re going to get. But if [you get stalled], you call me.” There must have been five or six times during that period where I called him. I’d say, “Here’s where I am, and here’s what I’m told you’re going to do or how you feel.” And he’d say, “That isn’t true; you just keep going.” And, man, oh, man, with that kind of support—.
Finally at the end of ’86, I got a call from the Justice Department that the senior staff would like to visit with me because they were thinking of recommending a veto to the president. I went over there all by myself.… I saw [one aide] a few years ago and she said, “Al, I remember the tapestry of profanity that issued from your mouth. It was lyrical.” I said, “You bastards do this to me and you’ll never see another Justice Department bill come out of the U.S. Senate again.” I remember there was just silence. Man, I laid into them. After that, [Attorney General] Ed Meese came in and said, “I don’t think we’ll have any difficulty recommending that the president sign this.”
NJ Could it have passed without Reagan’s support?
SIMPSON I couldn’t have done anything without Ronald Reagan. Nothing.
NJ Are you optimistic they will succeed this time?
SIMPSON I’m optimistic, but when you say “this time,” don’t ask me what that means. They’ll do something. And it will go with howling and shrieking and cries of rewarding illegals and people who steal and hack their way into the country. God, I can hear it all.
This article appears in the Feb. 23, 2013, edition of National Journal as Getting a Redo.