Immigration: It’s Only Bad When Democrats Do It

Immigration: It’s Only Bad When Democrats Do It November 18, 2014

The right wing is absolutely freaking out about Obama’s long-planned executive order that would defer deportation of some undocumented immigrants. They’re demanding that the Republicans shut down the government and impeach Obama over it, calling it treasonous and claiming that it will destroy America! But their own presidents have done identical things multiple times without a peep from Republicans.

In 1986, Congress and Reagan enacted a sweeping overhaul that gave legal status to up to 3 million immigrants without authorization to be in the country, if they had come to the U.S. before 1982. Spouses and children who could not meet that test did not qualify, which incited protests that the new law was breaking up families.

Early efforts in Congress to amend the law to cover family members failed. In 1987, Reagan’s Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner announced that minor children of parents granted amnesty by the law would get protection from deportation.

Spouses and children of couples in which one parent qualified for amnesty but the other did not remained subject to deportation, leading to efforts to amend the 1986 law.

In a parallel to today, the Senate acted in 1989 to broaden legal status to families but the House never took up the bill. Through the INS, Bush advanced a new “family fairness” policy that put in place the Senate measure. Congress passed the policy into law by the end of the year as part of broader immigration legislation.

“It’s a striking parallel,” said Mark Noferi of the pro-immigration American Immigration Council. “Bush Sr. went big at the time. He protected about 40 percent of the unauthorized population. Back then that was up to 1.5 million. Today that would be about 5 million.”

In fact, the use of executive action to stop deportation proceedings for large numbers of people goes back decades:

The record also shows that Congress made many executive orders of temporary relief permanent, often years after the fact. As Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, more than 900,000 Cubans fled to the United States, the vast majority paroled into the country by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Not until 1966, some seven years after the influx began, was the Cuban Adjustment Act passed.

In 1980, 130,000 Mariel Cubans and nearly 40,000 Haitians arrived in South Florida. Most, but not all, of the Cubans were paroled into the U.S. by President Carter. Haitians initially were protected from deportation by litigation challenging the denials of their asylum claims; most of these Haitians, and some Cubans whose entry had been challenged, eventually received discretionary “Cuban-Haitian entrant status” in the Reagan administration. Six years later, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided lawful permanent resident status for Cuban-Haitian entrants.

In 1987, Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese directed the Immigration and Naturalization Service not to deport an estimated 200,000 Nicaraguans in the United States without authorization, including those whose asylum claims had been denied. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush instructed his attorney general to provide “deferred enforced departure” status to an estimated 190,000 Salvadorans fleeing civil war. In 1997, a decade after Meese’s initial action, Congress passed legislation permitting these groups’ adjustment to permanent residence.

In 1989, the Bush administration provided DED status to 80,000 Chinese students in the U.S. who feared returning to the strife that eventually led to the Tiananmen Square massacre and later issued an executive order extending their status. Congress then passed the Chinese Student Protection Act in 1992, three years following the initial executive action, making the students eligible for green cards.

OK, but major exercises of prosecutorial discretion have been used only for foreign policy reasons, right? Wrong again. Executive actions have been used by every modern administration on more than a dozen occasions to further purely domestic policy objectives. After domestic emergencies—the San Francisco earthquake, the 9/11 attack, Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, and others—immigration officials relaxed enforcement efforts to advance public health and safety. Beginning with President Carter in 1980, every administration has instructed immigration officials to reduce enforcement efforts during the census.

Other exercises of discretion went beyond specific emergencies or events. In 1977, Carter administration Attorney General Griffin Bell suspended deportation of about 250,000 people unfairly denied visas by a quirk in the allocation process. It was not until nearly a decade later, via IRCA in 1986, that all of these cases were resolved.

Add up all these executive actions and millions of undocumented immigrants were given a path to citizenship and families were kept together rather than some of them being deported. Yet we heard no demands for impeachment, no cries of treason, no threats to shut down the government. It’s only bad when Democrats do it.

To be fair, though, those previous president weren’t black.

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