'86 law looms over immigration fight

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When President Bush goes to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to push for revival of a comprehensive immigration bill, he will have to wrestle with the ghost of a 1986 law that promised to solve the problem of illegal immigration.

That law prohibited the hiring of illegal immigrants, provided new resources for enforcement along the Mexican border and offered legal status, or amnesty, to several million illegal immigrants. In the current debate, which stalled last week when the latest legislative proposal failed to clear a procedural hurdle, senators of both parties cite the 1986 law as an example of what not to do.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said he regretted voting for the 1986 measure.

“I thought then that taking care of three million people illegally in the country would solve the problem once and for all,” Mr. Grassley said. “I found out, however, if you reward illegality, you get more of it. Today, as everybody has generally agreed, we have 12 million people here illegally.”

The 1986 law was a product of more than five years’ work by Senator Alan K. Simpson, Republican of Wyoming, and Representative Romano L. Mazzoli, Democrat of Kentucky. Both left Congress more than a decade ago.

Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, said: “I was here in Congress in 1986. I heard all the promises of the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. None of them were true, and three million people got amnesty. There was no border security to speak of, no employer sanctions to speak of, and there was no enforcement.”

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said: “The American people were sold a bill of goods. It didn’t work. We got an amnesty, and we got no enforcement. That is why people are so distrustful now.”

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