Winner of 2020 International Latino Book Awards in the category “ Best Political/Current Affairs Book – English”
2019 Finalist for INDIES Book of the Year
This book is an insider's history and memoir of the battle for The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986: its evolution, passage, impact, and its legacies for the future of immigration reform. Charles Kamasaki has spent most of his life working for UnidosUS, formerly the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. He was a direct participant in the many meetings, hearings, mark-ups, debates, and other developments that led to the passage of the last major immigration reform legislation, The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). He reveals the roles of key lawmakers and a coalition of public interest lobbyists that played a role in opposing, shaping, and then implementing IRCA. His account underscores the centrality of racial issues in the immigration reform debate and why it has become a near-perpetual topic of political debate.
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About the Author
Charles Kamasaki was the point person on immigration policy for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a Latino civil rights organization in the 1980s. He joined “The Group,” a tiny coalition of lobbyists from Latino, civil liberties, legal, and religious organizations who first delayed, then shaped, and later helped implement this legislation. Mr. Kamasaki currently serves as Senior Cabinet Advisor, UnidosUS (Formerly NCLR), and is a Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
Read an Excerpt
The Group seated itself roughly in order of seniority. Torres took the chair closest to Frank’s desk. Next to him was Wade Henderson, ACLU legislative counsel and a seasoned lobbyist. Warren Leiden, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and The Group’s technical expert on immigration law, was next, along with the National Council of Churches’ Michael Myers, who represented the refugee resettlement organizations likely to play a huge role in processing undocumented immigrants if a legalization or “amnesty” program was enacted. Bringing up the rear were Torres’ deputy, Joe Trevino and Charles Kamasaki, policy analysis director of the National Council of La Raza, the junior member of The Group.[i]
Brash, smart, mercurial, and intense, Arnoldo Torres was, in 1984, the most visible and outspoken Hispanic advocate in DC, often to the consternation of his more senior Latino organizational peers. He approached his mission of advancing Latino interests with almost religious fervor, combined with more than usual amount of sanctimony. Torres’ ascendancy to the top tier of Latino advocacy on the issue of immigration policy inside the Beltway was, in many ways, anomalous. For one thing, Torres represented what traditionally had been among the most conservative of the major Hispanic civil rights organizations – it was no accident that the last word in LULAC’s name was “citizens,” a term historically meant to distinguish LULAC’s more elite business-oriented constituency from the poorer, less educated Latino immigrants in the community. And although LULAC was known for its “work within the system” ethos whose leaders invariably were respectful of those holding high office, Torres was often provocative, saying things to elected officials that they rarely heard from others.”[ii] ….
There was very little in Torres’ past to suggest that he would eventually become a national Hispanic leader or a well-known lobbyist. After graduating from the University of the Pacific, he served for two years in the Legislative Analyst office of the California State Assembly—something like a combination of the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office in Washington, D.C.—a prestigious post to be sure, but an office normally populated by studious introverts and bureaucrats, not firebrands. But in at least one respect Torres looked the part; he was always perfectly coiffed and beautifully dressed, and looked like a GQ model. Joe Trevino would confide to his colleagues his amazement that, “Arnold has one closet of just shirts, all pressed, organized by color. He has another whole closet full of suits, divided by color and weight.” Nonetheless, Trevino would emphasize, Torres was no “dandy”; he’d played on both the varsity soccer and intramural rugby teams in college, and had no shortage of physical courage and toughness. [iii]
Torres didn’t smoke, drink, or curse, and made sure everyone around him knew it. He hated the smell of smoke. Although many in The Group were pack-a-day-plus smokers, and at a time when even Congressional hearing rooms had ashtrays available, they never smoked in meetings when Torres was present. It was clear that Frank’s unmistakable display of keeping The Group waiting, while leisurely reading and smoking, was irritating Torres. The Group waited, quietly at first, for several minutes that felt like an eternity before Torres quietly cleared his throat. Torres had a habit of throat clearing at least once during every conversation; whether this was a physical problem or just a nervous habit was never clear to even his closest friends and colleagues.
Frank noted the interruption, peered over the top of his newspaper at Torres for a few seconds, and then promptly resumed reading. Barney Frank was not your typical Congressman. Brilliant, witty, and loquacious, Frank was first elected to Congress in 1980, winning the seat previously held by the liberal Catholic Priest, Rep. Robert Drinan. Having crushed longtime incumbent Republican Margaret Heckler in 1982 when redistricting forced them to run against each other, he was on a roll. Frank was, together with classmate Chuck Schumer (D-NY), one of the hottest young stars in Congress on the Judiciary Committee, which had jurisdiction over immigration issues….Frank was a key supporter of the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, one who was being counted on to protect Mazzoli’s vulnerable “left flank” in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives….
By now The Group had been kept waiting at least 10 minutes inside the office, and perhaps 10 minutes previously in the hallway, while Frank read, and smoked, and read some more. It was getting way past the awkward stage. Kamasaki had never before experienced the metaphorical “tension in a room so thick it could be cut with a knife,” but he felt it now….
Torres cleared his throat again, possibly from his sensitivity to the smoke, or more likely due to impatience, loudly and unmistakably this time. Frank laid his paper aside. He put the cigar into an ashtray. He checked his watch. He took a couple of swigs of coffee. He glared at the group for a few seconds. Then he said, “OK, I’ve got 15 minutes. Tell me what you got. Shoot!”[iv]
 Joseph Michael Trevino, then Deputy Executive Director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, had been known to friends and family as “Michael” much of his life; because Torres always referred to him as “Joe,” the rest of The Group knew him by that name as well. Although “J. Michael” Trevino went onto have a successful career first with Gulf Oil Company and later as a management consultant, he is referred to in this text as “Joe,” the name most of his colleagues in immigration advocacy circles called him and knew him by in the 1980s.
[i] “The Group” was first described in the literature by Christine Marie Sierra in “Latino Organizational Strategies on Immigration Reform: Success and Limits in Public Policymaking,” Roberto E. Villarreal and Norma G. Hernandez, eds., Latinos and Political Coalitions, Praeger Publishers, 1991.
[ii] Ben Zimmer, “The Unrestrained Speech of the ‘Filterless,’” Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2015.
[iii] Author interview with Joe Trevino, October 2, 2012.
[iv] Author interview with Arnoldo Torres, November 1, 2013.
Table of Contents
Cast of Characters
Chapter 1: A Meeting, A People, A Movement
The League of United Latin American Citizens
The Four Horsemen
Gutierrez v. Gonzalez
LULAC Steps Up
Chapter 2: Storm Warnings
Chapter 3: The Battle Begins
The Group Weighs In
A Lame Duck
Chapter 4: New Blood, Shifting Strategies
Chapter 5: Climax, Postponed
Chapter 6: It’s Over
Chapter 7: Aftermath
Chapter 8: Ripples
In the Interim
An Inconclusive Conclusion
Whatever It Takes
What People are Saying About This
“In this deeply researched and beautifully written insider account of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Charles Kamasaki has formulated a clear, compelling narrative that is highly relevant to the ongoing struggle to advance immigrants’ rights today. Everyone who is engaged in the debate about the future of immigration reform should read this book.”
Charles Kamasaki’s archly titled “Immigration Reform, the Corpse that Will Not Die” is compelling history for any American trying to understand the ever-expanding policy pothole that is our broken immigration system - and the polarizing politics that have paralyzed progress. It is a timely reflection on the web of contingencies that often inform the fate of national issues. For reform advocates who have been struggling for decades to enshrine a more inclusive vision of America in our immigration laws, it provides encouragement to keep fighting and important insights about the need for an all of the above approach to securing landmark legislation: crafty inside lobbying, street heat in communities across the country, fresh communication and policy strategies, lawmakers willing to put real skin in the game, openness to compromise, and an unwavering moral compass. Amidst one of the most relentless attacks on immigrants and immigration in a generation, these words of wisdom from a legend in the field provide a hopeful reminder that reform is not dead – and will not die.
Charles Kamasaki has painstakingly written a book that provides invaluable insight into the labyrinthian process of enacting major social legislation: original intent, coalition building, public engagement, leadership personalities, the interplay of ideals and compromises. And because the legislation he chronicles involves the contentious subject of immigration, the book goes far beyond a narrative of law-making. Kamasaki captures the evolution of public attitudes, the human and economic costs, and the hardening positions which have transformed immigration into one of the most conflictive issues in modern America. This is legislative history intertwined with social history in one powerful volume.
Charles Kamasaki provides us with a poignant, evocative and timely look into the national debate of immigration. We couldn’t be luckier for this book. In Immigration Reform: The Corpse That Will Not Die, Kamasaki traces the roots of the perpetual racial divide by inviting us into a front row seat to a pivotal moment when he helped shape the comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform widely known as IRCA in 1986. At a time when these issues loom even larger, dominated by anger, xenophobia, nativism - emotions underscored by the siren call for a Wall - Immigration Reform is a must read. It provides valuable lessons on how we got here and how to get out of the logjam that’s challenging the core foundation of a nation of immigrants.
The most incisive and comprehensive analysis and history of a process that has changed America in fundamental ways
Kamasaki tells a compelling and true story of American politics through the eyes of a participant, the mind of a scholar and the voice of a novelist.
He transports the reader with vivid portrayals of people and moments as a historic reform debate unfolded in the Congress, and the country. If readers want to understand the fundamental character of the politics of immigration then and now, how Washington can fail repeatedly yet still rise to achieve historic reforms, and how the 1980s illuminate paths ahead in the Age of Trumpthen read this book. Trust me. I was there.
Charles Kamasaki’s book Immigration Reform is both a rare insider’s view on how the country’s last major immigration reform got done in Congress with unique insight on how outside groups shape major policy changes and a masterful feat of storytelling, engaging and enjoyable from beginning to end. He seamlessly weaves together the interests, the politics, and the personalities that shaped the reform effort in a way that makes it both a great story and an essential historical account that has important lessons for today’s immigration debates.
What Americans don't know about how immigration policy is made could fill a book. Finally, that bookabout how the “corpse” of immigration reform once rose from the dead and could be revived againhas been written, by someone who knows where all the bodies are buried. The definitive chronicle of immigration reform; destined to be a classic legislative case study
Charles Kamasaki masterfully describes the power of agricultural employers and rural legislators to obstruct and shape immigration reform and the creative responses of advocates for farmworkers. The book demonstrates the pivotal role in the 1986 immigration bill of the compromise on a “Special Agricultural Worker” program, legalizing 1.1 million undocumented farmworkers, and changes in the agricultural guestworker program. Its trenchant analysis informs the current and centuries-long struggles over agribusiness’s recruitment of foreign citizens to harvest its crops and the economic and political status of farmworkers.”
From his role in the cast of the drama, Charles Kamasaki gives us a masterful, sweeping account of the enactment in 1986 of landmark immigration legislation that reverberates through our immigration debates today. His telling – in highly readable, storytelling style – connects major American cultural and political themes, from U.S.-Mexican relations to the origins of key social justice movements to the influence of southern lawmakers in American politics, with the nation’s immigration history. But ultimately, the book shows how history and change are about the individuals who are in the fray and what they do to get to “yes” from deeply different places. Would that such actors were on the stage again today.
"Who gets to be a citizen of America and who gets to decide is a defining challenge for our nation. The immigration policy debate continues to roil our politics and our elections, and some believe it is our country's most difficult policy issue to resolve. This book is the origin story of this modern-day showdown. Written by a warrior who was in the room at every stage, and who, along with his fellow advocates, helped shape one of modern America’s monumental and improbable legislative breakthroughs, this book offers a remarkable view into the dynamics of the immigration reform debate, the challenges of making legislative sausage, and the contending forces that compete and cooperate to produce either political paralysis or, this case, historic change."
Immigration Reform: The Corpse That Will Not Die is a timely and important achievement! Immigration policy remains one of our most vexing national issues. Kamasaki offers an insightful analysis of the factors that helped produce the nation’s last comprehensive immigration act 30 years ago. However, its greater contribution may be in what it says about the challenges facing us today. The fact that the story is viewed through the lens of the Latino civil rights movement makes the book even more significant. Bravo!
Nearly everyone regards the US immigration system as "broken," yet the nation is so divided on the subject that it seemingly can't be fixed. It's the "corpse that will not die" of Charles Kamasaki's magisterial recounting of dozens of failed attempts to bring it alive. Yet, in 1986, Congress and the Reagan administration did pass a comprehensive immigration reformpushed by a small group of activists who succeeded against all odds. Kamasaki was at the center of that struggle and tells in detail how it happened. His tale is instructive for current-day leaders and citizens: if reform could happen three decades ago, why not now?
Essential reading for anyone who is at all curious about how the country’s always-challenging immigration debate got to where it is. In this account, expertly told by an acute observer of policy and the humans who shape it, you will learn about history, about race, and about how our democracy works almost before you realize that it’s happening. No journalist should attempt to cover immigration without reading this book!
With this stirring, brilliant, and comprehensive look at the history of the Latino civil rights movement through the lens of immigration, Charles Kamasaki cements his legacy as one of the most knowledgeable and effective advocates for the Hispanic community over the last forty years. And if there was a “Game of Thrones” about how IRCA passed, this book would be the script!