Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

The Reagan amnesty 'gotcha' that isn't


For years, liberals have pointed to President Reagan's signing of a 1986 amnesty for illegal immigrants as proof the GOP is crazy not to follow suit now, or that Reagan would be a Democrat today, or something. (For some reason, they don't employ the same logic about JFK and tax cuts.) But House Republicans have held firm on the principle that we must stop the influx of illegal immigrants before making any move to legalize the presence of those already here, and so -- unlike what happened in 1986 -- Congress has not passed a law on this subject.

Now President Obama is reportedly set to issue an executive order to defer, indefinitely, the prosecution of some 5 million illegal immigrants. The left is anxious to prove this kind of bypass of Congress, too, is something Reagan did. And so a new line of argument is suddenly popping up all over the place. Typical is this version of it from the Associated Press :

"President Barack Obama's anticipated order that would shield millions of immigrants now living illegally in the U.S. from deportation is not without precedent.

"Two of the last three Republican presidents -- Ronald Reagan and George 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.

"There was no political explosion then comparable to the one Republicans are threatening now."

This, the shiny new argument goes, is proof positive the GOP, and particularly tea partyers, are acting in bad faith.

But well down in that AP article, there's a quote that -- unintentionally, I presume -- speaks to one very large difference between then and now:

"'It's a striking parallel,' said Mark Noferi of the pro-immigration American Immigration Council. 'Bush Sr. went big at the time. He protected about 40 percent of the unauthorized population. Back then that was up to 1.5 million. Today that would be about 5 million.'"

If we take Noferi's numbers at face value and apply some basic math, that would mean the "unauthorized population" has grown from about 3.75 million to 12.5 million during the course of 25 years (Bush issued his executive order in 1989). If so, the number of illegal immigrants has more than tripled during that time while the total U.S. population has grown by about 28 percent.

This is an argument against an amnesty like the one Obama is contemplating, not for it. You see, a big reason for the opposition to another amnesty now -- and particularly one that takes place before we've proved we can keep new illegal crossings to a bare minimum -- is that things didn't go so well the last time we tried it.

If the "unauthorized population" were to grow at the same rate over the next 25 years, we'd be talking about nearly 42 million people by 2039. At even half the 1989-2014 rate of growth, we'd be talking about some 21 million people.

It's not that critics of Obama's plans are being hypocrites now; rather, they've learned from what happened in the past and want to avoid a similar mistake in the future. None of this even gets to the question of whether the Reagan and Bush executive orders -- issued to address problems with a law that had passed not too long beforehand -- are really all that comparable to the present situation.

If you think a rational, enforceable immigration policy is something the U.S. government owes it to its citizens, not to mention the millions of people trying to follow the rules to enter this country, you just might think what happened in the past bolsters, rather than weakens, your case.


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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.