In the aftermath of the fracas over Sen. Harry Reid’s remark that he couldn’t understand how any Hispanic could be Republican, the Washington Times and conservative bloggers today are calling attention to an immigration episode in Reid’s career that he has tried to put behind him. In fact he apologized for it in a public speech more than a decade later.
The year was 1993. Immigration had not been a major issue in Washington since Congress passed a comprehensive reform bill in 1986, and then another in 1990.
But immigration policy was beginning to move back to the fore. Public concern about border security was becoming heightened in the wake of several violent acts tied to foreigners, such as the shooting of two CIA employees outside the agency’s entrance in McLean, Va., by an illegal immigrant from Pakistan.
More than 170 immigration reform bills were introduced in Congress that year, including ones by Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan and Rep. James Bilbray, both Democrats.
Among the toughest was one by Reid. Besides reducing quotas for legal immigrants, barring government benefits for illegal residents and establishing new penalties on employers, it included a controversial provision that would have denied citizenship to babies born to illegal immigrants — the same 14th amendment matter that is being debated as part of today’s wrangle over immigration.
"We have too many immigrants, legal and illegal," Reid told a Review-Journal reporter at the time, when Nevada did not have anywhere near the Hispanic population it has today.
Reid talked about immigration and his bill in a tough Senate speech a few weeks later. It was a speech he would never give today, in which he decried the cost of illegal and legal immigration and expressed surprise that 26 percent of federal prisoners were noncitizens.
Reid’s bill attracted three conservative cosponsors, Sens. James Exon, D-Neb., Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C. and Richard Shelby, D-Ala. It died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Reid reintroduced the bill the next year, but evidently had second thoughts on the citizenship requirements and omitted that section entirely.
The 1993 legislation "was clearly unsatisfactory," Reid said when he submitted the new version, in a speech that was also softer on the rhetoric. "Frankly, I should not have introduced the bill in the form that it was in. My intentions were good but the remedy proposed required significant fine tuning."
In 2006, with the Senate in the midst of another heated debate over immigration, Sen. Jeff Sessions. R-Ala., made reference to Reid’s speech from 1993, and also to Reid’s vote in 1986 against a comprehensive reform bill that offered amnesty to 3.1 million immigrants and set penalties for companies that hire illegals,
Reid then took to the Senate floor and delivered a striking mea culpa.
"I don’t want this to be true confessions, but I want to relate to the Senate that the biggest mistake I ever made, the largest error I ever made was 15 or 18 years ago, as a member of the U.S. Congress," he said.
"A group of people came and talked to us and convinced us that the thing to do would be to close the borders between Mexico and the United States; in effect, stop people from coming across our borders to the United States," Reid said. "This period of time for which I am so apologetic–to my family, mostly–lasted about a week or two. I introduced legislation."
Reid said his wife, who rarely intercedes, told him he was wrong, along with his longtime friend Rey Martinez and other supporters in the state.
"I do want to tell …. the rest of my friends in the Senate, that is a low point of my legislative career, the low point of my governmental career."
Today, some anti-immigration activists, such as former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., say they prefer the old Harry Reid.
"What has changed since Reid introduced the bill? In 1994, there were approximately 3 million illegal aliens living in the United States. Today there are 11 million," Tancredo wrote in a blog last month. "As Senate Democratic Leader, he now sees illegal aliens and foreign workers as future Democratic voters and believes that pandering to Hispanics will help him win votes."
In the face of blog attacks from the right, Reid’s campaign put out a statement today in which it acknowledged his change on immigration, then quickly pivoted to an attack on Republican challenger Sharron Angle.
"While Sen. Reid very publicly expressed his regret for the immigration legislation he introduced in 1993, Sharron Angle’s new DC handlers have taken a different tack with her extreme and dangerous agenda for Nevadans – pretending Angle’s past statements regarding her long-held beliefs simply never happened and lying about her agenda for the future," Reid’s spokesman Jon Summers said.
And so the campaign continues.