Comparing President George H.W. Bush’s Deferral of 1.5 Million with President Obama’s Deferral of 5 Million

November 20th, 2014

Recently, the Associated Press reported that President Obama’s pending executive order is “not without precedent,” as Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush “did the same thing in extending amnesty to family members who were not covered by the last major overhaul of immigration law in 1986.” However, a close study of what the 40th and 41st Presidents did reveals that it is not the “same thing” as President Obama’s imminent action. Not even close.

In 1986, President Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act. This bipartisan act provided a path to citizenship for up to 3 million immigrants who had been continuously present in the United States since 1982. However, the law did not cover the applicant’s spouse and children who did not meet the residency requirement. This gap created millions of so-called “split-eligibility” families. Generally, when a person is naturalized, his or her spouse or children would in due course be eligible to apply for citizenship. However, under the IRCA, during this lengthy and cumbersome process, spouses and children would be subject to deportation.

In 1987, the Immigration and Naturalization Service put on hold the deportations of children under the age of 18, living with a parent who was on the path to citizenship. In effect, this temporary deferral of deportations was meant to give the parent the appropriate time to complete the naturalization process, and then allow the child to apply for citizenship. At this point, it made little sense to deport children whose parents would, in due time, become citizens, and by extension give citizenship to their children. Attorney General Edwin Meese’s policy focused on circumstances where there were “compelling or humanitarian factors” that counseled against deportations. The children would only need to wait until their parent’s status was final, so they too could apply for naturalization.

Following the change of administrations, in July of 1989 the Senate passed the Immigration Act of 1990 that would prohibit the deportation of the children and spouses of people who received amnesty under the 1986 IRCA. The Senate bill did not make it to a vote in the House until a year later in October 1990. Though, as the New York Times reported at the time, “passage of the new legislation seemed almost certain.” It ultimately passed by a vote of 231-192, with 45 Republicans voting yay, and 65 Democrats voting nay. Despite disagreements about the economics of the bill, the Times reported, “few dispute the humanitarian aim of uniting families.”

In the interim, between the Senate vote in July of 1989, and the House vote in October of 1990, spouses and children who would soon be provided with a pathway to citizenship, were still subject to deportation. In response, in February of 1990, INS Commissioner Gene McNary announced a new policy to expand the deferral of deportations to as many as 1.5 million spouses and children of those going through the naturalization process. This was a temporary stopgap measure to protect those who would soon be on the path, as long and arduous as it is, to naturalization.

On November 29, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Immigration Act of 1990. On signing the law, the President said it “accomplishes what this Administration sought from the outset of the immigration reform process: a complementary blending of our tradition of family reunification with increased immigration of skilled individuals to meet our economic needs.” With the signing of the law, the executive policy become immediately moot–exactly what the President had in mind by temporarily putting on hold deportations until Congress could finish passing the bipartisan legislation.

Both Presidents Reagan and Bush used deferred prosecutions to keep together families, where a parent was about to be naturalized, and their spouse and children would receive citizenship in due course. It made little sense to rip apart families, when within a few years, the spouse and children would receive citizenship. As a 1990 article in the New York Times explained, a legal resident under the 1986 amnesty, who was on the path to citizenship, “would [soon] be able to file a petition for his wife to be granted legal status, a process expected to take about two years.” Protection was extended based on someone who already benefited from Congress’s naturalization laws.

While the American Immigration Council calls President George H.W. Bush’s policy a “striking parallel to today’s immigration challenge,” it teaches just the opposite lesson.  Presidents Reagan and Bush deferred deportations for family members who would ultimately be naturalized by virtue of their spouse or child. In sharp contrast, President Obama is deferring deportations for both the minors, and their families, in the hopes that one day Congress will grant them amnesty.

The fundamental disconnect is that in the former situation, those exempted from deportation had a path to citizenship, established by Congress. In the latter situation, no such path exists. Further, President Obama’s plan is not meant as a temporary stopgap measure while Congress finishes a bill in the works, but is meant as a quasi-permanent status. Though it is not binding on the winner of the 2016 election, as a practical matter, those given deferred prosecution and work permits will be effectively untouchable. In effect, President Obama is attempting to bootstrap a future grant of amnesty based on his own 2012 deferral, which had the effect of protecting minors and not their families.

President George H.W. Bush’s deferred deportations were sandwiched by bipartisan statutes. President Obama’s deferred deportations of childhood arrivals in 2012, and imminent deferral of deportations for family members, is entirely unsupported by a statute. It’s an executive branch sandwich with nothing in the middle. Reagan and Bush’s deferrals are world’s apart from Obama’s plan.