The Blog


12:00 AM, Apr 15, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
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FOUR WEEKS AGO, CONGRESS was on the brink of passing radical immigration reform. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas would have beefed up controls on illegal immigration and dramatically reduced legal immigration. But when the House easily passed its immigration bill on March 21, the most restrictive provisions had been stripped away or defeated. And the reforms outlined in the Senate bill, which comes to the floor April 15, have been considerably scaled back.

What happened? Simply put, four freshmen Republicans -- Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan and Reps. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Steve Chabot of Ohio, and Dick Chrysler of Michigan -- waged an insurgent campaign to prevent their party from passing the most restrictive immigration legislation since the National Origins Quota Act of 1924. The result was the rout of two senior Republicans -- Simpson and Smith -- long obsessed with immigration. That it was freshmen who stepped into the vacuum underscores the unorthodox ways of the class of "94, including their willingness to challenge Congress's seniority system.

When the immigration bills were introduced last year, they seemed likely to pass. Simpson and Smith, popular with their colleagues, were the chief immigration spokesmen for an emboldened party. They also had public opinion on their side (witness the success of Proposition 187 in California, denying benefits to illegal immigrants). Few Republicans focused on the Simpson/Smith legislation, which sailed through the requisite subcommittees with little fanfare.

The first red flag for the four freshmen, and the first indication Simpson and Smith had overreached, was their proposal for a Draconian worker verification system. This would have required all employers to check every new employee's immigration status with a new government agency. Abraham and Brownback wrote in the Washington Times that this would be costly and ineffective. Chabot was alarmed by government intrusion in the workplace and possible infringement of civil liberties. But Chabot's his amendment to eliminate the verification system lost in the Judiciary Committee. "That defeat reminded us we had a tough fight ahead," recalls Rick Swartz, a pro- immigration organizer.

Immigration sat on the back burner during the autumn budget scrum, and it was only on December 19 that Abraham announced his opposition to the Simpson bill. The announcement came after the senator learned of a provision in the legislation barring immigrants who had become U. S. citizens from bringing in members of their immediate families; other provisions entailed new taxes and regulations. Abraham, whose grandparents came to Michigan from Lebanon, had met with Simpson in November to let it be known that he "had a different perspective." Abraham spent much of January and February lobbying his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, but the irascible Simpson employed a heavy-handed strategy. At the end of a tense hearing on February 29, Abraham tried to offer an amendment splitting the bill's provisions on legal immigration from those addressing illegal immigration (a move strongly favored by immigration supporters, since lumping the two together tended to ease passage of restrictions on legal immigration, when illegal immigration was the real target).

A visibly angered Simpson charged that it was "inappropriate to recognize the junior member of the committee" and mischievously asked the chairman, Orrin Hatch, who was running the meeting, the chairman or his staff. Hatch was furious, but backed off and denied Abraham his amendment.

Though Abraham lost that battle, it was Simpson who was now on the defensive. During the next two weeks, Abraham continued to work with two other committee members -- Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, and Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat -- to build support for splitting the bill. The group won over a number of wavering senators -- most important, Hatch -- and on March 14 the committee voted 12-6 to divide the Simpson bill. This was a major blow to Simpson (he still hopes to unite the bills on the Senate floor), and Abraham's performance did not go unnoticed.