Immigration Council Strongly Reaffirms Research on Reagan-Bush Family Fairness Policy

December 5, 2014

Washington D.C. - This week, the Washington Post issued another editorial in its campaign against President Obama’s decision to authorize temporary deportation relief for several million undocumented parents of U.S citizen children. In particular, the Post argues that there is no historical precedent for President Obama’s action, discounting the parallel that the President and many others have drawn between past executive actions, such as the Family Fairness program instituted by Presidents Reagan and Bush, Sr. In fact, the Post called this analogy indefensible, essentially arguing that supporters of the Immigration Accountability Executive Action were attempting to recast history in an exaggerated attempt to justify the President’s overreach. The opposite is true. As the first organization to publicly lay out the case for the strong precedent for executive action in immigration, we believe it is important to set the Post, and the record, straight on the political significance of the Family Fairness program and why actions from almost a quarter of a century ago matter today.

As we have explained in several publications, every president since Eisenhower has used his executive branch authority to protect immigrants, including undocumented immigrants. We have noted, in particular, the Family Fairness policy instituted by President Reagan, and expanded by President Bush, Sr., as particularly relevant, given both the scope of the action, and the politics of the time. With respect to scope, our research indicates that both official government sources and advocates believed that as many as 1.5 million people were likely to be affected by the Family Fairness program, designed to defer the deportation of children and spouses who were not covered by the 1986 legalization enacted by Congress. Like today, the number of people affected by the executive action was roughly 40% of the undocumented population. Also like today, President Reagan, and then President Bush, ran the risk of alienating Congress, by choosing to allow these family members to remain in the country.

The Post and other detractors have chosen to focus on whether 1.5 million people were really affected, alleging that this number was wildly exaggerated at the time. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Post has doggedly stuck by this claim, even though it has twice amended its original Fact Check article challenging the 1.5 million figure. While it grudgingly acknowledges that the 1.5 million number was a key point in the political and policy debate, it fails to note the real significance: the size of the potentially affected population did not cause the cries of panic and constitutional overreach that we hear today.

Presidents Reagan and Bush used their executive branch authority to keep immigrant family members together. They did this despite the fact that Congress had definitively acted, passing a legalization program that did not include spouses and children. At the time Family Fairness was implemented, it was not at all clear that Congress would, eventually, enact laws to protect these family members. Instead, Reagan and Bush's program was based on compassion, utilizing the discretion that Presidents have to enforce the immigration laws with common sense and grace.

What’s most confounding is the Post’s departure from past supportive statements on executive action on immigration. In 1987, the Post’s editorial board called for “generous” acts of discretion to keep families together noting, “Commissioner Nelson promised to use the discretionary powers given by law to the attorney general to suspend deportation of family members if, in individual cases, there are specific humanitarian reasons for doing so. We hope he is generous in using this discretion…If Congress will not be moved, the INS should have a heart.”

In addition, in 1990, the Post editorialized in favor of Bush's Family Fairness executive action noting, “The new rule is sensible, humane and fair. This response by the INS is in line with traditional policy to favor immigration that reunites families. In asserting his authority quickly and with a generous spirit, the new commissioner is off to a good start.”

We agree with the Post’s editorial board that “facts matter.” We simply believe that a news organization that has supported executive actions on immigration taken by previous presidents should reexamine all the facts before jumping to conclusions about the legality and significance of the president’s current actions. It is clear the editorial board during the Bush and Reagan era demonstrated a compassion towards families torn apart by the broken immigration system that escapes them today.


For more information, contact Wendy Feliz at 202-507-7524 or [email protected]

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