Amnesty advocates are frantically grasping at legal straws in an attempt to justify President Obama’s most recent unlawful edict granting legal status and work permits to illegal aliens. One claim is that Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did the same thing during their administrations, thereby providing a legal precedent for Obama to do what he did.
Reagan and Bush did allow some illegal aliens to stay in the United States, but the legal context and extent of their actions were in no way comparable to Obama’s unilateral decree. The actions of Reagan and Bush followed the passage by Congress of the 1986 amnesty, known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which legalized 2.7 million illegal aliens.
Some parts of the law, however, were not clear, such as the status of an illegal alien who didn’t qualify for amnesty and was married to a spouse who received it. To deal with these situations, authorities chose to act with leniency, thus permitting illegal aliens in these “gray areas” to remain. The numbers were limited. Contrary to claims by Obama supporters, Bush’s action did not result in legal status for 1.5 million illegal aliens, but only about 140,000.
The key point is that in both cases the presidents based their actions on a law passed by Congress. Perhaps they overstepped their proper boundaries in doing so, but generally they were showing deference to the constitutional principle that Congress makes laws and the president is supposed to enforce them.
Obama’s action was almost exactly the opposite. When Congress refused to do his will by passing an amnesty, he decided to take action by decreeing one of his own. Most significantly he did so after having admitted previously on a number of occasions (here, here and here) that he had no such authority.
Most significant is the magnitude of Obama’s edict. Far from being an adjustment involving relatively small numbers, as was the case with Reagan and Bush, Obama’s latest unilateral decree offers legal status to five million illegal aliens. Almost two million other illegal aliens in the Dream Act category are eligible for legal status under the edict Obama proclaimed in 2012, following the refusal of Congress to pass the Dream Act two years earlier.
Thus on his own authority, Obama has offered legal status to more than twice the number of illegal aliens that Congress legalized in 1986. Aside from exceeding the proper authority of Congress at the present time, he far exceeds the magnitude of anything Congress ever did on immigration. Significantly, Congress passed legislation in 1990 after Bush’s action to restrain presidential action on immigration. Obama ignored those restraints too.
In defense of Reagan and Bush, both most probably were under the impression that the 1986 amnesty was a one-time act, and that illegal aliens would not get legal status again. This was the consensus among most congressmen who passed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. The prevailing view then was that the legislation, which also outlawed the employment of illegal aliens and strengthened border control, would stop illegal immigration.
Sadly it has continued, encouraged in part by unceasing proposals to aid and abet illegal immigrants. Obama apparently envisions no end to amnesty, as he acts to end effective immigration law enforcement.