FACT CHECK: Pelosi Says Reagan And Bush Protected More Illegal Immigrants Than Obama

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said recently that Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush protected a higher percentage of illegal immigrants with executive orders than President Barack Obama did.

Verdict: False

As much as 45 percent of the illegal immigrant population could have been protected by executive actions taken by the Obama administration, while most estimates suggest that a lower proportion were covered by executive actions signed by Reagan and Bush in 1987 and 1990.

Fact Check:

Pelosi said during a press conference that President Donald Trump’s position on immigration was “a complete departure of Republican presidents” like Reagan and Bush. “President Reagan was great on immigration. He did more than Congress did after the Congress passed a bill. President George Herbert Walker Bush was great on immigration,” Pelosi said.

She compared Reagan and Bush’s legacy on immigration to Obama, arguing that Reagan and Bush were even more generous than Obama. Reagan and Bush did sign legislation that gave amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, but Pelosi specifically compared their use of executive orders, not their enactment of legislation.

“The two of them protected a higher percentage of people than Barack Obama, President Obama did with his executive orders. With their executive orders, they protected a higher percentage,” Pelosi continued.

Congress passed and Reagan signed legislation in 1986 that granted legal status to 2.7 million illegal immigrants, but many children and spouses of those who got amnesty were ineligible.

Reagan thought that families shouldn’t be separated, so his Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) decided to protect many of those children from deportation in 1987 through a “Family Fairness” executive action. Bush’s INS expanded the Family Fairness program to include spouses in early 1990, but both executive actions were superseded by legislation in November 1990 that made protections for spouses and children permanent.

Pelosi says these executive actions protected a higher percentage of people than Obama did with major executive actions on immigration in 2012 and 2014. But few people actually received protection due to the Family Fairness policy.

Once Bush expanded the program to include spouses, only about 47,000 people applied for the program, according to a Miami Herald article from October 1990. This amounts to about 1 percent of the 3.5 million illegal immigrants in the country in 1990.

A much larger percentage of the illegal immigrant population took advantage of Obama’s executive orders establishing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. About 800,000 illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. when they were minors – 7 percent of the 11.3 million illegal immigrants in the country today – have received deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit through DACA.

It’s possible that thousands more did not apply to the Family Fairness program because they were afraid that reporting themselves to authorities would lead to their deportation, but the number of children protected remained modest even after the 1990 law cemented the policy. A 1994 report said that 52,272 dependents were protected in 1992 and 55,344 were protected in 1993.

Exact figures on how many people received the protection under Reagan before Bush took office are unknown. The Reagan administration said that roughly 100,000 families could benefit. It’s possible that Pelosi’s claim is partially right if a higher percentage of illegal immigrants were protected by Family Fairness under Reagan than were protected by DACA under Obama, but she would still be incorrect about executive action under Bush.

Reagan and Bush also extended humanitarian deferred action to those whose home countries faced internal conflict though programs similar to Temporary Protected Status. But Pelosi’s office backed up the Minority Leader’s claim by comparing Family Fairness figures to DACA.

Instead of focusing on the number of people actually protected under Family Fairness, Pelosi’s office cited a figure from 1990 that estimated that as many as 1.5 million people were eligible to sign up for the program, which would have been 43 percent of the illegal immigrant population.

Media outletslegal briefs and the White House cited the 1.5 million figure when Obama signed a major immigration order in 2014 to argue that the President’s sweeping executive actions on immigration were legal and had precedent. “If you look, every president – Democrat and Republican – over decades has done the same thing,” Obama said on ABC’s “This Week” at the time, claiming that Bush gave 40 percent of illegal immigrants relief through executive action.

But when The Washington Post fact-checked the Obama administration’s claim in 2014, it found that the 1.5 million number was “fishy.” The figure seems to have originated from a 1990 New York Times article that refers to a conversation between Gene McNary, Bush’s INS commissioner, and a congressman during congressional testimony about how many relatives of amnesty recipients would be eligible for Family Fairness.

“The 1.5 million does not fit with the other facts,” McNary told WaPo. The congressman “was trying to get a figure out of me, and I guess I gave him one.”

Nearly all official government estimates and media reports at the time said it could affect 100,000 to 250,000 people. The Pew Research Center also corrected a graphic detailing the number of people potentially affected by major executive actions on immigration, lowering the estimate for Family Fairness from 1.5 million people to 100,000 people.

Even assuming the disputed 1.5 million (43 percent) estimation is correct, Obama’s executive orders were expected to cover a larger percentage of illegal immigrants. Pelosi compared Family Fairness to DACA, but didn’t include the estimated impact from another executive action – Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA). The program would have protected the parents of illegal immigrant children who have U.S. citizenship or a green card.

DACA and DAPA combined were estimated to protect as many as 5 million people, or about 45 percent of the illegal immigrant population. But while Obama tried to start DAPA through executive action, it was never implemented due to legal challenges from states and a tied Supreme Court decision.

Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies, argues that the main point of the debate shouldn’t be about the exact estimates of who was protected by executive action under each president. “It should be about intent,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email. Appleby said that while Republicans have “welcomed immigrants as a positive for the nation” in the past, that sentiment isn’t apparent in the party today. “While Reagan spoke of a shining city on a hill, Trump speaks of a fortress surrounded by a wall.”

Trump’s proposed immigration plan would create a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million “Dreamers,” eliminate the diversity visa lottery program and establish a $25 billion trust fund for a border wall and border security.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter

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