If the Republicans don’t like what President Obama is planning to do about immigration through executive action — going so far as to threaten impeachment or a government shutdown in response — then they’d better do a little checking of recent history.
The story begins on November 6, 1986, when Reagan signed the last comprehensive legalization bill to pass Congress. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) gave up to 3 million unauthorized immigrants a path to legalization if they had been “continuously” present in the U.S. since January 1, 1982. But the new law excluded their spouses and children who didn’t qualify. As the Senate Judiciary Committee stated at the time, “the families of legalized aliens…will be required to ‘wait in line’.”
Immediately, these split-eligibility families became the most polarizing national immigration issue. U.S. Catholic bishops criticized the government’s “separation of families,” especially given Reagan’s other pro-family stances. In early 1987, members of Congress introduced legislation to legalize family members, but without success.
Shortly after Congress’ failure, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) commissioner Alan Nelson announced he was “exercising the Attorney General’s discretion” to assure that children would “be covered” by legalization. The administration granted a blanket deferral of deportation (logistically similar to today’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) for children under 18 who were living in a two-parent household with both parents legalizing, or with a single parent who was legalizing.
Lawmakers and advocates, however, urged Reagan to go further. Spouses and some children who had one parent able to legalize but not the other remained unprotected. A California immigrants’ rights group called this “contrary to the American tradition of keeping families together.” And as Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) told the INS, “If you have the discretion to protect children, why not a family?”
President Bush the Elder’s administration did pretty much the same thing.
In July 1989, the Senate moved to protect a bigger group—all spouses and children of those who legalized under IRCA. The Senate passed legislation 81-17 that prohibited the administration from deporting family members of immigrants in the process of legalizing and directed officials to grant them work authorization. The House failed to act on the Senate’s bill.
George Bush Sr. then responded in February 1990 by administratively implementing the Senate bill’s provisions himself. As Bush’s INS Commissioner, Gene McNary, stated: “It is vital that we enforce the law against illegal entry. However, we can enforce the law humanely. To split families encourages further violations of the law as they reunite.” Under Bush’s “family fairness” policy, applicants had to meet certain criteria, and reapply to the INS every year for extensions.
The Bush administration anticipated its family fairness program could help enormous numbers of immigrants—up to 1.5 million family members, which amounted to over 40 percent of the 3.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. at the time.
Whereupon the Republicans immediately voted out articles of impeachment and hounded both Reagan and Bush ceaselessly to the ends of their terms, right?
The way the Republicans see it, the difference is that when Presidents Reagan and Bush used executive actions on immigration, they were Republicans showing compassion for the downtrodden and trying to preserve family values. When President Obama does it, he’s a Democrat letting in Ebola-laden terrorists and drug smugglers. Can you think of any other reason that might be coloring their judgment?