It Doesn’t Matter What Reagan and Bush Did

In recent days, liberals supporting President Obama’s plan for executive amnesty have defended the move by citing, what they contend, were similar actions taken by Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Andrew Taylor at the AP spells out the argument, noting that both Reagan and his successor “extended amnesty to family members who were not covered by the last major overhaul of immigration law in 1986.” Using prosecutorial discretion, likely to be the basis for Obama’s announced order tonight, they stayed deportations for the children and spouses of immigrants who had been legalized under the recently-passed Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). While their actions “were less controversial because there was a consensus in Washington that the 1986 law needed a few fixes and Congress was poised to act on them,” comparable moves by the current president have sparked controversy because, “Obama is acting as the country — and Washington — are bitterly divided over a broken immigration system and what to do about 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally.” Danny Vinik, writing for the New Republic, also sees parallels, noting, in a piece entitled, “Reagan and Bush Acted Unilaterally on Immigration, Too—for the Same Reason That Obama Will,” that “Bush and Reagan’s actions were legally acceptable for the same reason Obama’s would be: ensuring that our immigration policy is fair.” Juan Williams reinforced the talking points repeatedly on last night’s Hannity. While there is some basis for comparison, conservative commentators have been quick to point out that the executive actions taken by the former presidents does not establish precedent for the Constitution-straining course being set by the White House’s current occupant.

Passed during Ronald Reagan’s second term, the IRCA was supposed to be the final resolution to the nation’s burgeoning unlawful immigration problem. In return for increased border security and enforcement, the president granted amnesty to the majority of the 3.2 million illegals in the country in the mid-1980s. While over 2.5 million eventually took advantage of this supposed “one-time deal,” the law’s enactment created unforeseen issues: in order to be eligible for the amnesty, an immigrant was required to have been in the country since 1982. This meant that, in some families, legal status was conferred upon one adult but not their spouse or children.

Believing this to be unfair and counter to the law’s intent, President Reagan took executive action in 1987, authorizing the Immigration and Naturalization Service to defer deportations for children whose immigrant parents now qualified for green cards and eventual citizenship. Unlike the proposal believed to be forthcoming from Obama, Reagan’s order did not grant Social Security numbers or work permits to those shielded by this “extended voluntary departure.” Bush’s “Family Fairness” policy three years later, which expanded this deferment to also include spouses, is the better parallel, as it did grant work authorizations.

Those who have attempted to rebut the supposed precedent set for Obama’s executive amnesty by the actions of the Republican presidents have focused on three main points:

    • Reagan and Bush were acting to clean up a law passed by Congress, in whose hands the establishment of a “uniform Rule of Naturalization” rests, whereas Obama is acting in defiance of the legislative branch. In 1986, Congress had expressed its desire to grant amnesty to unlawful immigrants and did so through the immense, complex codification that was the IRCA. Loose ends were to be expected, and the actions taken by Reagan and Bush were done in conjunction with Capitol Hill, not in opposition to it, as evidenced by the Immigration Act of 1990, which made their expanded protections law. During the first two years of his first term, President Obama’s party controlled both the House and Senate, yet no legislation on immigration was pursued. Republican opposition over the last four years does not validate his desire to override a co-equal branch, nor justify the president’s recurring mantra, “If Congress won’t act, then I will.”
    • The scale of what Obama is proposing vastly outweighs what was done by Reagan and Bush. Although some analysts cite numbers as high as 1.5 million, only 180,000 immigrants took advantage of the elder Bush’s “Family Fairness” program. By contrast, Obama’s decision to grant work permits to the parents of legalized children could defer deportation for as many as 5 million unlawful immigrants.
    • As Mark Krikorian of the National Review points out, even the modest executive actions taken by the Republican presidents met with resistance from Congress. In the same 1990 Immigration Act mentioned above,

Congress rejected further ad hoc presidential amnesties by creating Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The various unilateral actions presidents had taken to amnesty small groups of illegal aliens over the years — Extended Voluntary Departure and Deferred Enforced Departure were among the Orwellian euphemisms deployed — were clearly seen as abuses of the discretion which Congress granted the president. TPS was intended to limit that discretion in granting legal status, including work permits, to illegal aliens, by limiting such grants to clearly specified circumstances — such as when a country suffered an earthquake or hurricane — and imposing specific procedures upon the executive. And to make certain that future executive actions didn’t simply become a means of naturalizing entire populations of illegal aliens, the TPS law requires any bill addressing naturalization of TPS recipients has to pass the Senate with a 60 percent super-majority.

When combined, these arguments create a compelling rejoinder to liberals gleefully rehashing the same misdirection techniques that come to bear whenever a major issue reaches it boiling point. However, the analyses of Krikorian and others overlook one key fact that should trump all others, and which we conservatives should not be afraid to admit: liberals are supporting their arguments with policies that failed. The bill that Reagan signed into law in 1986 was a tremendous mistake. The amnesty provided under the IRCA was an abysmal failure. Whatever happened on the margins, the truth of the matter is that what was supposed to be a solution to the problem of 3.2 unlawful immigrants helped create the current crisis of 12 million illegals. By incentivizing further crossings without ever securing the border, the IRCA flashed a beacon throughout Mexico, Central America and the rest of the globe, offering the promise of a future amnesty if one could simply make it into the United States. That long-held belief reaches its fruition this evening.

Rather than engage liberals in a tête-à-tête about the fine points of executive action, the focus in this debate should be on the failures of past immigration policy. The statistics that emerged in the years following the IRCA clearly show that any leniency that comes without border security only exacerbates our current problem. Far from “fixing our broken system”, it does the opposite. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying. Liberals should not get away with using the amnesty passed under Reagan and Bush to bolster their arguments. It should be turned against them, as still more evidence that what President Obama is doing is wrong.