By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006
About 20 years ago, Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) were 30 minutes away from passing a landmark immigration bill that would grant amnesty to more than 3 million illegal immigrants. The measure also carried one of the most controversial proposals in American politics: a national identification system.
But moments before the deciding vote, Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Calif.) took the House floor and delivered a scathing speech that still rings in Simpson's ears.
"We may face the danger of ending up like Nazi Germany," said Roybal, a Mexican American. "I do not say that we are going to go back to the Nazi regime, but . . . it will be the beginning of the violation of rights, and we . . . in this nation may be known by numbers."
The speech hit home, and the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act passed without language allowing the president to one day consider instituting a national ID system. In the years since, the number of illegal immigrants has soared to an estimated 12 million.
In the search for factors that led to the law's failure, some, like Simpson, point to the elimination of the national identity provision because it would have allowed employers to quickly identify the legal status of a job applicant. It was a mistake, Simpson believes, that is about to be repeated since neither the current House nor Senate bills consider an identity card requirement.
But, across the ideological divide, immigration opponents and supporters in the current emotional debate over illegal immigration -- Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats who disagree on a broad range of issues -- repudiate a national identification system.
"There's just no support for it," said Jeff Lungren, spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who sponsored the House immigration bill that sparked hundreds of protests this spring. Sensenbrenner wrote his disdain for the idea into his bill. Nothing in the legislation "shall be construed to authorize . . . the establishment of a national identification card," the bill says.
Sensenbrenner favors the expansion of a worker verification system that employers would check through the Internet. In its companion bill, the Senate opted for a similar tactic rather than a national ID system.
The National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business association, supports the verification program, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some businesses oppose it, saying it is an expansion of an existing program that has been plagued by errors that slow the verification process.
The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the former president of the University of Notre Dame, said the immigration issue should not have been allowed to come to this. As chairman of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy between 1978 and 1982, he strongly supported a national ID program. He said civil liberties groups and immigration lawyers joined businesses to fight national ID, and, after that, worker verification.
"There were all kinds of phony excuses," Hesburgh said. "They have a card in Europe. If every European has one, it's not a problem. It's so simple, I feel like shouting it."
While most European countries have national identity cards, some, such as Britain, Denmark, Norway and Ireland, do not make carrying them compulsory.
In addition to Roybal's linking the program to Nazism, Hesburgh recalled that others compared it to George Orwell's vision of 1984, with a Big Brother government watching its residents.
Washington-based policy groups put forward more concrete objections.
Writing for the Heritage Foundation in 1990, Scott A. Hodge said legal immigrants would be penalized when wrong information was written into the national ID database, which he said was inevitable. In a recent interview, Hodge, president of the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, said those are still his views.
On its Web site, the American Civil Liberties Union lists several reasons to reject a card, saying that such a program would cost $4 billion to operate, that terrorists or illegal immigrants would find a way to get one and that a database of all Americans could be misused by a government determined to spy on its citizens.
Hesburgh said that some groups were unwilling to give any program a chance, including some ideas being proposed and widely supported today.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the League of United Latin American Citizens opposed almost every aspect of change in the 1980s: a temporary worker program, a worker verification program and beefed-up border patrols that would included sensors and helicopters.
Hesburgh said authorities should look past opposition to a national ID in the way that they looked past the Mexican and Latin American groups' opposition back then. He believes the program would be effective.
"Someone comes across the border, he . . . needs a job, a job that gives him decent pay," Hesburgh said. "He goes to one of these guys at harvest time, shows the card, it's phony. He goes to 19 other places, the card isn't valid. The guy says, 'If I let you work, I'd get hit with 10,000 bucks.' "
Simpson, since retired from the Senate, knew exactly what he wanted: "Something you would swipe or a revised Social Security card," he said recently. "It would be in the possession of everybody, including bald white guys like me. It got completely distorted."
He was angry at Roybal and House Democrats who killed the idea.
"They cut it out in the middle of the night, with 30 minutes to go before it passed, without any kind of appropriate identifier," Simpson said. And he said he understands why House Republicans and other Americans are angry now.
"We told them this would be the last amnesty," Simpson said. "That there would be penalties against employers. It was like, Merry Christmas! But without identification, sanctions are toothless."