Al Simpson’s 1986 Bill Was Last Bipartisan Immigration Law Passed By Congress

The Simpson-Mazzoli Act championed by former Wyoming Sen. Al Simpson in 1986 is the last major immigration reform bill passed by Congress. He says the only way to get meaningful immigration reform is for it to be bipartisan.

Leo Wolfson

February 08, 20246 min read

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Getty Images (Getty Images)

Former Wyoming U.S. Sen. Al Simpson believes it will take bipartisanship in Washington, D.C., to solve an escalating crisis at the nation’s southern border with Mexico.

“People are saying we need a Republican immigration bill or a Democrat immigration bill,” Simpson told Cowboy State Daily. “To hell with that. You’ll never get that.”

It’s a debate that’s been seething for decades through changeovers in Congress and the White House.

In 1986, Simpson co-sponsored the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, legislation that remains the last bipartisan major immigration reform measure passed by Congress.

The bill strengthened border security measures and imposed penalties on employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers. It also gave amnesty to around 3 million people who’d been living in the United States illegally for at least about four years prior to the passage of the law.

Simpson said he’s had many immigrants approach him since that bill passed and thank him.

“I felt very good about that,” Simpson said.

Bipartisan Effort

Co-sponsoring the bill with Simpson was Romano Mazzoli, a Democratic representative from Kentucky. Former President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.

Although Reagan was by no means an open border president, when he signed the bill into law, he touted it as improving “the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society.

“Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans,” Reagan continued.

The Simpson-Mazzoli Act was not overly successful and has been blamed for exacerbating immigration problems rather than resolving them. Despite the passage of the act, the population of illegal immigrants rose from 5 million in 1986 to 11.1 million in 2013.

Simpson said the bill was substantially weakened during the legislative process, removing a requirement for a more secure identification system based on pressure from both the left and right, who viewed it as a national ID card.

“That was enough to take it down,” Simpson said of the provision that was taken out.

Now the ID measures go far beyond what was a hang-up in 1986. Iris scans, voiceprints and palmprints — and in some cases DNA samples — are collected by immigration enforcement agents.

Although still proud to get the legislation passed, the removal of this provision was a deep blow for Simpson, who said the identification piece was the driving purpose behind the bill.

“All of us that worked on the bill said, ‘That’s never going to work,’” Simpson said. “It didn’t work, and it hasn’t worked simply because of the horror story of the slippery slope for a national ID card.”

Texas National Guard troops try to untangle an immigrant caught in razor wire after he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 31, 2024, from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Texas National Guard troops try to untangle an immigrant caught in razor wire after he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 31, 2024, from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Getty Images)

Broken System

America was built on immigration and many people have touted this legacy as a reason to provide amnesty to those who cross the border illegally.

But one piece almost everyone can agree on is that the current immigration situation at the southern border needs fixing.

“It is unconscionable because the first duty of a sovereign nation is to control its borders, and they all do,” Simpson said.

CBS News reported in December that federal data showed that over five days that month, Border Patrol agents processed 50,000 immigrants crossing illegally into the United States, while 1,500 a day enter at official crossing points.

The number of unauthorized immigrants crossing the border keeps reaching record highs under President Joe Biden’s administration, and the backlog of cases in U.S. immigration courts has soared past 3 million.

“That’s one of the key issues of the (2024) campaign to come is immigration reform,” Simpson said. “Whoever is going to do the most reasonable approach to that is going to be elected.”

A recent bipartisan proposal brought by Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford was defeated in the Senate on Wednesday.

No Successful Bipartisanship Yet

Although there have been various efforts brought to bring bipartisan solutions to immigration over the decades, none have passed since the Simpson-Mazzoli Act.

The most recent effort brought by Lankford was criticized by many Republicans for allowing an average of up to 5,000 illegal migrant crossings per day before migrants crossing illegally would be barred from seeking asylum. The bill also raised the legal standard of proof to pass an initial screening for asylum, making it potentially more difficult for asylum seekers to pass.

Simpson noted how seeking asylum is not a privilege bestowed to many immigrants.

“Asylum means that they’re (former country) after your butt,” Simpson said. “It does not include a guy who just gets tired of his government and tired of working and wanted to go to the U.S. and takes his key out of his shop in some other country and wants to come here.”

Biden slammed Senate Republicans’ rejection of Lankford’s bill on Tuesday, blaming former President Donald Trump for calling and “threatening” lawmakers with “retribution” if they supported the package, which also included more American funding for Ukraine and Israel.

Simpson agrees with this synopsis.

“He’s squeezing people that are for him and they’re like zombies,” Simpson said. “The Trumpy speaks and the trumpet goes out around the land and zombies join together to say, ‘We’ll take you there, we’ll take care of that.’”

Ultimately, Simpson believes it will take bipartisan support to get any meaningful immigration reform to pass. Reagan espoused a similar belief, famously saying at one point “that half a loaf is better than none, and I know that in the democratic process, you’re not always going to get what you want.”

With razor-thin margins in both the Senate and House, members of both parties will likely have to work together to get any meaningful reform passed, whether it takes place under Biden or Trump, Simpson said.

“You’ve got to have a bipartisan deal, you can’t have a Democrat or Republican deal,” Simpson said. “You have to have an American bill. That’s what people are looking for all over the country now.”

Leo Wolfson can be reached at

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter