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In a twist of events, both President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush (senior), effectively agreed with President Barack Obama’s decision, expected next week, to protect five million immigrants. Their policies in 1986 and 1989, respectively, opened the pathway for millions of undocumented immigrant families to safely remain in the U.S.
In 1986, Reagan signed into law S. 1200, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. This law provided a sweeping overhaul of immigration law, in which three million undocumented immigrants were permitted to stay in the U.S. if they had arrived prior to 1982 and had stayed here continuously.
This law was enacted in response to the failure of earlier efforts by Congress, which is a similar scenario to today, where President Obama is proposing executive action due to inaction from Congress. What was lacking in the 1986 law was coverage of family members.
If spouses and children did not independently meet the requirements of the law, they would be deported, thereby breaking up families. In 1987, under Reagan, a clause was added by the then Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) commissioner, including protection of minor children.
In 1989, Bush senior pushed forward a Senate policy on “family fairness,” stating that the law should be “enforced humanely.” This extended legal status to immigrant families. In a striking similarity to today, in which the actions of President Bush agrees with the decision of President Obama, the Senate discussed the bill, but the House did not do so.
In response, Bush put the Senate measure in place, thereby protecting 40 percent, or 1.5 million undocumented immigrants. Congress responded by passing the policy into law as part of broader immigration reform. Coincidentally, today 40 percent of undocumented immigrants is estimated to be five million, the number that would be affected by President Obama’s proposed executive actions.
What is different from today is that Bush acted after the House said they would not address the immigration issue. Today’s House of Representatives say that they plan to do this, however.
Speaker of the House John Boehner has threatened that Congress will prevent any executive action by President Obama. What is stopping him from doing so imminently is his priority to avoid a government shutdown. Nevertheless, he has announced publicly that President Obama will “pay a price” if he enacts the executive orders he proposes.
According to Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat in Texas, President Obama is within his full legal authority to enact the executive orders that he proposes. The difference between the immigration reforms of 1986 and 1989, and today, is that Republicans in Congress did not raise objections against the President when he was within the same party. Rep. Castro called today’s actions “pure political theater.”
Those who oppose President Obama’s anticipated executive orders may not realize that none of his 10-point immigration reform plan would award legal status to undocumented immigrants. Instead, those covered by the law would receive only temporary protection from deportation. In some cases, they would also be able to get a work permit.
Some within the Republican Party disagree with House Speaker Boehner’s argument. Former Florida Governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush, son of President George H.W. Bush and younger brother of former President George W. Bush, had this to say in April 2014:
“Illegally coming to the U.S. should not be viewed as a felony. It’s an act of love and a commitment to one’s family.” Former Governor Jeb Bush urged the U.S. to move beyond harsh political rhetoric and get “to a better place.” From distant as well as recent history, it appears that Presidents Reagan and Bush, as well as their families, would, in fact, be in agreement with the Obama decision for executive action on immigrants’ families.
Opinion by Fern Remedi-Brown
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