Alan Simpson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Let 'er Rip: Reflections of a Rocky Mountain Senator; Conversation with Alan K. Simpson, former US Senator, Wyoming; 9/17/97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by L. Carper

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The Immigration Bill

Let's talk about the immigration bill, which you mentioned. This was a set of problems crying for a solution. There had not been a major immigration reform in decades.

Thirty years.

Thirty years. Why don't you talk about some of the issues you were confronted with and how you proceeded?

Well, you have to remember that the select commission was appointed and Hesburgh, Father Ted, was the chairman.

Appointed by President Carter.

Carter, yes.

And you found yourself on the committee.

I was stuck. I said, "How did you put me on there?" and Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker said, "Oh, Alan, you are the junior Republican." So the senators were Mathias and Kennedy and DiConcini and myself -- two Democrats, two Republicans. And so we did a work product. We did it in two pieces -- illegal immigration reform and legal immigration reform. And I deign to say that it's the only document I ever saw in my eighteen years where we did a study, and took the study from the turgid, dusty books, and put it on the statute books, both of them. So it was tough. We had to deal with emotion, fear, guilt, and racism. Bigotry. We were accused of everything, but you can't do that to Father Ted Hesburg, that won't sell. So he was a champion. Mazzoli was from the third district of Kentucky and I was from Wyoming, so obviously we could handle it. No one else could. A California senator couldn't touch it with a stick, a Massachusetts senator, New York, New Jersey, forget it. They can't play with the issue. So we decided to play. And we had joint hearings, even though he was a Democrat and I was a Republican.

And he was in the House and you were in the Senate, so that was unusual.

Not only was it unusual, they weren't going to let us do it. Finally we went to Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and said, "What's this stupid business? I have to have a hearing and then Ron's using the same witnesses two weeks later? Let's do it together."

"Oh, we can't."

"Why the hell not?" So with Baker's help and Tip O'Neill, we had joint hearings. Unheard of in Washington. We didn't know it. We were new and fresh. We didn't care. And so we did a bill which legalized about 2.9 million people, which penalized employers who knowingly hired illegal aliens, and the reason it hasn't worked like it should is we are unable to take the final step doing something with some type of secure identifier which will be presented not just by people who look foreign, but by bald-headed Anglos like me. Every time you get into that here comes the [National] Council of La Raza, MALDEF [Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund], and LULAC [League of United Latin American Citizens]. I know, it's called "the groups."

Two fundamental issues were resolved by the bill: previously employers who hired illegals were not penalized, and that was changed; and in addition, as you just said, you legalized those who had actually been in this country.

Before a cut-off date. January, I think, of '82.

Why wouldn't everybody agree with that? What sort of obstacles to making those changes did you encounter and how did you counter them?

It's called "the groups," and those groups are people ... though some of those Hispanic groups have no members, they just get their money from the Ford Foundation by playing the violin, pleading, and saying that there's discrimination rampant through the country. And so groups like that were very effective. People listened to them. No one was interested in discriminating. Fortunately we had a Hispanic congressman like Bill Richardson, who's now at the UN. We had others, but we had people who would get up and talk about Nazi Germany and tattoos, and the fact that they'd had their cards taken away from them when they lived in Texas as children. Nobody had a card in Texas if you were Hispanic; I mean the drivel you had to listen to was beyond belief. And as I say, you use emotion, fear, guilt, or racism. Their object was to do nothing except, say, enforce existing law. Enforce the labor law and then you won't have these problems.

Their purpose was to build their constituency, and you do that in Washington regardless of what constituency it is. Whether it's the NRA or the NEA, or the whatever, you do that by frightening your members. So that you say, "please send ten bucks to save you from the government." So they were always the same. Always the same guff, emotion, fear, guilt, racism. And so we went right ahead and it did pass, it passed big. It passed by a vote of 78-20 and 83-7 (I can't remember), but every year it would drop. Every year it got tougher because they would begin to talk about the Statue of Liberty. And the statue of liberty does not say, in the words of Emma Lazarus, "Send us everybody you've got, legally or illegally."

I always kept a huge bag of mail from American Hispanics on the border, second- or third-generation, saying, "Hey Simpson, when are you going to stop this crap? I'm the one that's getting discriminated against. I'm losing my job to a person who's here illegally and I've been here three generations but I'm Hispanic. These organizations opposing the immigration bill don't speak for me. LULAC does not speak for me. And MALDEF does not speak for me." Well that always infuriated the groups but they're tough and they'll be right there forever. And now this new RAND Corporation study will make them just beat their brains out.

The RAND Study is arguing that there should be limits, basically, that we're getting too many unskilled workers for whom there are no jobs.

That is correct. And they're coming under a philosophy which is very humane, it's called "Family Reunification." But to an American family, reunification is a spouse and minor children. To an Indian-American or to an Asian-American it means brothers and sisters, and adult brothers and sisters, and even aunts and uncles. And that is something that's going to have to be corrected. When we lost Barbara Jordan, the magnificent former congresswoman from Texas who chaired the commission on legal immigration reform, she said we must have a breathing space. We must have 550 thousand a year instead of a million. She used phrases which are now charged with emotion.

For example?

She said at a hearing one day with her voice, which is the voice of God (I've never heard that voice, but if God is female it was Barbara Jordan's), "I am tired of the phrase African-American. I am tired of the phrase Hispanic-American. I am tired of the phrase Irish-American. I am tired of the phrase Asian-American. We are Americans." She was black. She was the first black legislator in the state of Texas. She was the first black congresswoman. She also said, "And what we also do, we call it assimilation and it's called Americanization." If anyone else had done that they'd have blown the building down. But she had guts, magnificent stature, courage, and spirit. And when she died, all those reforms, which I had incorporated into a bill, died with her. I couldn't get it done because I lost the most noble spokeswoman for the cause.

So in a way you're saying that, being from Wyoming, you could take on this issue, whether you wanted it in the beginning or not. But then you really had the courage to stand up and take the flack because you could be called a racist, I mean you weren't a black legislator. So I guess this western Wyoming background, man of principle, it helped prepare you for that. Is that fair?

Yeah. But you want to remember another life experience which was deeply embedded in me was that I was 12 years old, the war was on, and suddenly in the sagebrush between Cody and Powell, Wyoming, a group of 45 - 50-year-old carpenters went to work and built the Japanese war relocation center at Heart Mountain. So here suddenly was a city of 12,000 people. And I went out there as a Boy Scout. I said, "I don't want to go out there, we could all be killed." Because they had barbed wire, guard towers. They were mostly from California and they were all Japanese Americans. And the kids my age like Norm Mineta -- that's where I met the congressman, Norm Mineta.

He was in the Japanese camp?

In the camp, yes. And here he was, troop number so-and-so. Same merit badges, same little books about Scarlet O'Hara (those were marvelous books), and we laughed and told stories and tied knots. And I thought to myself, we haven't done this to the German Americans, we couldn't identify them. We didn't do it to the Italian Americans, we couldn't identify them. We did it only to the Japanese Americans because we could identify them. Now if that wasn't the greatest racist act. And I just was so puzzled because I met grandmothers and sons. And guess where all the able bodied ones were: they were in the U.S. armed services. It was an ugly, sick time.

And that stuck in your mind?

Oh yes. So I don't want to ever be a racist, because there were people who put "No Japs Allowed" right there. Well, you've got to keep history sorted out as I often say. Everybody's entitled to their own opinion but nobody is entitled to their own facts. And after all, the Japanese did bomb us at Pearl Harbor, I know that. And you have to remember that those things did happen. But you have to remember the human aspects of racist policy. So I refuse to wear the label. I said, "Don't give me that crap, I don't have to take that one. There's nothing in my background that discloses racism."

In this business that you're describing you really have to confront hypocrisy all the time. I mean here you are with this in your mind, working to solve these problems, never finally solving them. You're probably being called a racist. But on the other hand, you're going to Georgetown parties with liberals where you're being told, "Do you really want to pass this law? Because it's going to affect my maid back there."

That was wonderful. I'd go to the salons of Georgetown and they'd splash chardonnay on my shoes and say, "Senator, your bill -- it's a wonderful thing you're doing there. I hope though we're treating people humanely, that would be the key. And your bill doesn't apply to one person does it?" And I'd say "Yes, yes it does."

"Oh, oh why would that be?"

"Well, we're trying to look out for Sylvia in your kitchen there who you pay $50 a week and give one day off a month and you call her one of the family, and she looks like she's been on the Bataan death march." I said, "those are the people we're trying to protect too." And they'd say, "Gee, I didn't know that." I mean there's a lot of phony stuff in this game. And then the Mexican government, I went down there and they said, "Simpson, you are evil. Whatever the hell are you up to? What we want is for you to take care of our people who are there and treat them humanely, respect them." I said, "How the hell do we do that when they're there illegally? Do you think anyone illegal in the United States is going to have the same rights that I do? Forget it. They're going to be exploited and used, and expended like husks."

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