Immigration Reform Claws at Fence : It Has No Chance This Year Unless Simpson Gets Help in House

<i> Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer</i>

Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), the Don Quixote of immigration reform, is tilting at his favorite windmill again.

The news media were out in force last week when Simpson held a Washington press conference to explain the newest immigration bill bearing his name. Like the last three, it aims to slow illegal immigration to this country by penalizing employers who hire illegal aliens. Unlike previous versions, however, the new bill does not balance this restrictionist approach with a simultaneous amnesty for illegal aliens. Instead, it makes legalization of their status conditional on the success of the employer sanctions.

The first salvos in this new battle over immigration reform were fired immediately. The Federation for American Immigration Reform praised the senator’s tenacity in trying again. Latino civil-rights leaders, who fear employment discrimination and police harassment of their people, said that the delayed amnesty makes the new bill worse than last year’s.

How did Simpson, a little-known senator from a sparsely populated state, become the Senate’s key man in the volatile immigration debate? Single-minded determination had a lot to do with it.


Simpson was the ranking Republican on the Senate subcommittee on immigration when he was named by President Jimmy Carter to the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy in 1979. That panel set the current debate in motion when it defined illegal immigration as a national problem and proposed solutions to it, including employer sanctions and legalization. When he became chairman of the immigration subcommittee in 1981, Simpson joined his counterpart in the House, Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.), in writing some of the commission’s key proposals into a bill that they introduced before Congress.

The Simpson-Mazzoli bill was never enacted, but it has come very close. Last year, after failing twice before, it passed the Senate overwhelmingly and the House narrowly, but died in a joint conference committee.

That failure was especially galling to Simpson, because it was not the work of the usual opponents--Latino congressmen like Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles)--but the fault of the Reagan Administration. The White House was not willing to pay the $10 billion to $12 billion that effective immigration enforcement will cost. It is worth noting that Simpson’s latest version would cost barely $3 billion.

But even with the lower cost Simpson will have a hard time getting his bill passed. He may push it through the Senate easily, but, without Mazzoli, the bill’s big obstacle is in the House.


According to Capitol Hill sources, Mazzoli is “reassessing his options,” and may not join forces with Simpson again. Some say that Mazzoli has wearied of the fight, particularly after a reelection campaign that saw his opponent try to make an issue of Mazzoli’s deep involvement with immigration, a matter of little importance in Kentucky. Others suggest that Mazzoli, a moderate Democrat, disagrees with the toughened amnesty provisions.

Whatever the case, immigration reform won’t go anywhere in Congress this year unless Simpson finds someone in the House to carry a bill similar to his. One has already been introduced there, but it is the work of Rep. Dan Lungren, a Long Beach Republican who has little seniority and even less influence with Democratic leaders like House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. and Judiciary Committee chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.).

Simpson needs a spear-carrier who is a Democrat with some seniority and influence. Perhaps someone like Roybal.

The idea is not that farfetched. While Roybal has been portrayed as Simpson’s chief nemesis on immigration, that is unfair. He represents some heavily Latino and Asian neighborhoods near downtown Los Angeles, so he was concerned about the immigration issue long before Simpson was, introducing reform bills as far back as the 1960s.


Roybal also has been more flexible with restrictionists like Simpson than they have been with him. Hardly anyone noticed in January when Roybal introduced an immigration bill that included employer sanctions along with a generous amnesty provision. Roybal said that he hoped to push Simpson and Mazzoli into compromising with him. When he got no reaction, except for flak from Latinos, Roybal withdrew the proposal and reintroduced the same immigration bill that he authored last year as a counter to Simpson-Mazzoli.

The best chance that Congress had of enacting immigration reform this year may have ended right there--unless Simpson relaxes his rigid stance and compromises. The senator may not like it, but his latest crusade will fail just as the others did unless he has the help of a Sancho Panza to bring him down to earth.