If Presidential Action on Immigration Is Impeachable, Reagan and Bush Should Have Been Axed

As Republicans in Congress and right-wing columnists bellow that President Obama should be impeached if he issues an executive order to overhaul the nation’s immigration policies, it’s important to note that a long line of Republican presidents have done exactly the same thing for decades.


In fact, more undocumented immigrants have been granted reprieves from prosecution and deportation protection by Republican presidents than Democrats, according to an American Immigration Council summary of dozens of White House-ordered reforms since 1956.

Today’s right-wingers don’t want to mention that their Republican hero, President Ronald Reagan, signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which gave up to 3 million unauthorized immigrants a path to legalization if they continuously had been in the U.S. since January 1982. The Reagan White House also issued executive orders that deferred deportation of children of non-citizens in more than 100,000 familes, and also told immigration authorities not to deport up to 200,000 Nicaruaguan war refugees.

In contrast, President Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative (DACA), which provided a two-year renewable reprieve from deportation and granted work permits, affected up to 1.8 million immigrants, according to the American Immigration Council.  

Another Republican president whose immigration policies could be an “impeachable” offense, according to Republican congressmen like Texas’ Joe Barton or Washington Post  columinist Charles Krauthammer, would be President George Herbert Walker Bush, who in 1990 announced a blanket deferral of deportations for 1.5 million spouses and children of unauthorized people, which accounted for 40 percent of the nation’s undocumented population. That step was very similar to President Obama’s DACA executive order in 2012. Both presidents, a Republican and a Democrat, acted when Congress did not.

What fuming right-wingers fear is that the Obama White House might go big—ordering federal immigration authorities to refocus their activities and allowing several million undocumented households to breathe easy and lead more normal lives. The New York Times reported that there are as many as 3.3 million undocumented parents of children who are American citizens who have been in the U.S. for at least five years. The 1986 immigration reform law signed by President Reagan did not try to keep similar families together. It was slammed as inhumane then—and is still sharply criticized.

If Obama also includes children who were undocumented when they came to the U.S. in his expected executive orders, that could add another million or more people, the Times said. If the White House includes undocumented farm workers who have been here for years, that could add hundreds of thousands more.

While it is possible that Obama’s executive orders could be the largest-ever immigration reforms by any White House administration since World War Two, it is important to note that previous presidents issued large-scale immigration executive orders as part of a push to get Congress to act. President Bush’s 1990 reforms were based on a Senate-passed bill that was rejected by the House. However, after Bush issued those orders affecting 1.5 million spouses and chuldren, the House then passed the legislation.

What you will probably not hear as Republicans complain loudly about Obama’s next steps, is that Republicans presidents—more so than Democrats—have granted amnesty to undocumented people.

What follows are 14 executive orders granting immigration relief by Republican presidents, starting in 1956, as compiled by the American Immigration Council. Before Obama, the Democratic president who used his office to allow the most immigrants to stay was Jimmy Carter, whose policies allowed more than 676,000 people to stay—not counting the 360,000 Vietnamese refugees who came during his and the presidency of his predecessor, Republican Gerald Ford.

Here are the 14 executive orders on immigration policy by Republican presidents:

• 1956. President Dwight Eisenhower allows 923 orphans to settle in the U.S.

• 1956-58. Eisenhower allows 31,915 Hungarian refugees to stay after Soviet invasion.

• 1959-72. Presidents Eisenhower through Richard Nixon let 621,403 Cuban exiles stay.

• 1977-82. Presidents Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and Reagan, let 15,000 Ethiopians stay.

• 1981-87. President Reagan allow 7,000 Polish refugees stay after Soviet-led crackdown.

• 1987. President Reagan stops deportations for 200,000 Nicaraguan war refugees.

• 1987. President Reagan allows 100,000 children of non-citizens to stay who were not affected by the 1986 law he signed granting amnesty to 3 million immigrants.

• 1989. President Bush allows 80,000 Chinese students stay after Tianenmen Square, which he formalized a year later suspending deportations and granting work permits.

• 1989. President Bush allows 2,225 Indochinese and 5,000 Soviet refugees to stay.

• 1990. President Bush defers deportation of 1.5 million unauthorized spouses and children of people legalized under 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

• 1991. President Bush allows 2,227 Kuwaiti refugees to stay after invasion by Iraq.

• 1992. Presidents Bush and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, allow 190,000 Salvadorans stay.

• 2006. President George W. Bush allows 1,574 Cuban doctors into the country.

• 2006. President George W. Bush allows 3,600 Liberians stay in the country.

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