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ICYMI: Every U.S. President Since Dwight Eisenhower Has Taken Executive Action on Immigration


New Analyses from the American Immigration Council and the Center for American Progress Demolish GOP Talking Point about “Unconstitutional” Nature of President Obama’s Impending Executive Action

Washington, DC – Despite Republican assertions that executive action on immigration from President Obama would represent an unconstitutional power grab, two new analyses show this assertion is wildly mistaken.

A report from the American Immigration Council, “Executive Grants of Temporary Immigration Relief, 1956-Present,” offers an historical breakdown of the pervasive use of executive action by presidents of both parties, noting that President Obama would follow in “a long line of presidents who relied on their executive branch authority to address immigration challenges” if and when he delivers on executive action.

Philip Wolgin of the Center for American Progress adds additional context, noting that every single president since Dwight Eisenhower has taken executive action on immigration issues – on 39 different occasions over the past 60 years.

American Immigration Council, “Executive Grants of Temporary Immigration Relief, 1956-Present”

 While the whole American Immigration Council report is worth a read, the sections highlighting the executive actions during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush eras particularly caught our eye:

“Perhaps the most striking historical parallel to today’s immigration challenges is the ‘Family Fairness’ policy implemented by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr.  The story behind the fairness policy begins on November 6, 1986, when President Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which 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 and forced them to wait in line, creating ‘split-eligibility’ families, as they were called.  The U.S. Catholic bishops and immigration groups criticized President Reagan for separating families.

“In 1987, Reagan’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) commissioner announced a blanket deferral of deportation (logistically similar to today’s DACA 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.  Then, in July 1989, the Senate passed legislation to protect a bigger group—prohibiting deportation of all spouses and children of those who were legalizing under IRCA.

“But the legislation stalled in the House, and in 1990 President Bush Sr. administratively implemented the Senate bill’s provisions.  His INS commissioner, saying ‘We can enforce the law humanely,’ expanded the blanket deferral to as many as 1.5 million spouses and children of immigrants who were legalizing, provided they met certain criteria.  President Bush thus protected over 40 percent of the then-unauthorized population from deportation.  The House then passed legislation, and President Bush signed it later that year.

“The Family Fairness program is only one example of the common characteristics of presidential decisions to act on immigration. Several decisions were large-scale actions potentially affecting hundreds of thousands or millions of immigrants. Some presidents focused on the necessity of keeping families together.  And other presidents acknowledged the absurdity of trying to deport people for whom major legislation in Congress was pending.”

 Center for American Progress, “By the Numbers: Every President Since Eisenhower Has Taken Executive Action on Immigration”

Author Philip Wolgin writes:

“Since Congress first passed a comprehensive immigration law—the Immigration and Nationality Act—in 1952, each of the 11 subsequent presidents, from President Dwight D. Eisenhower through President Barack Obama, have used their broad executive authority to address unanticipated situations affecting foreign nationals at home and abroad.  These executive actions have filled gaps in legislation by permitting certain individuals to temporarily enter or remain in the United States when it serves the nation’s interests.  They have protected people from specific countries—such as Hungarians and Cubans fleeing communism, Iranians fleeing revolution, Chinese nationals after the Tiananmen Square massacre, as well as Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans after a hurricane.  These executive actions have also addressed individuals who share attributes or possess common equities such as spouses and children of immigrants who received legal status under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and, more recently, DREAMers through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program…

… A new executive action by President Obama to protect people who have been in the United States for many years and who have family ties in the country would benefit American workers and provide a much-needed boost to federal payroll tax revenue.  Only Congress can permanently fix our broken immigration system by passing immigration reform. But when President Obama takes executive action in the coming months—which he has promised to do by the end of the year—he will be continuing a 60 year-old bipartisan tradition of using presidential authority in service our nation’s immigration system.”

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “Next time you hear Republicans calling executive action on immigration ‘imperial’ and ‘unconstitutional,’ remember that every President since Dwight Eisenhower have used executive authority on immigration.  That’s a total 39 times over the past 60 years.  Unconstitutional?  No.  Normal?  Yes.”

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