Bush Precedent for Obama Amnesty? Not Even Close

By Mark Krikorian on November 19, 2014

Thursday night the president will announce more details about his long-promised unilateral immigration decrees. Supporters of the president have been claiming that an executive action by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 is a precedent for Obama's sweeping measures. I argued yesterday at National Review Online , that the 1990 grant of the equivalent of deferred action to spouses and minor children of certain IRCA amnesty beneficiaries was not a precedent because – among other reasons – it was so much smaller. (It was called "voluntary departure" – only in the immigration business can "departure" mean that you get to stay.)

Size matters. As I noted in August about some of the small executive actions on immigration over the years, "The governing order of a vast continental nation can abide a few absurdities like that in its interstices without suffering any lasting harm." But something that covers millions of people is a different matter altogether.

So, what was the size of the 1990 action that Obama's cheerleaders are brandishing? Because the number of people who benefited from that executive amnesty is not readily available, if at all, I imputed the small scope of the program from the number of people who got green cards from the Congress's codification of the program a few months later in the 1990 Immigration Act, as part of the cleanup following the 1986 amnesty. Because the statutory (i.e., lawful) version cast the net wider than Bush's order (it covered children up to age 21, as opposed to 18, for instance), the total of those who received green cards as "legalization dependents" served as an upper bound for the size of Bush's executive action.

The statutory program ran from fiscal year 1992 through 1994, and conferred this many green cards, almost all to people from Mexico:

1992: 52,272
1993: 55,344
1994: 34,074
Total: 141,690

This is the source of the "about 140,000" figure in the article, which is less than 1/35th the reported size of Obama's planned amnesty.

But it turns out I was overestimating. In doing some more digging, I found this in Immigration Reform and Perishable Crop Agriculture: Compliance or Circumvention?: "As of January 21, 1991, there had been just over 80,000 applicants to this program. Of these, 45 percent had been denied."

That means only 44,000 people got status through Bush's action through that date. While some more may have still been in the pipeline to be processed, the statutory provision that superseded the executive action was enacted in late 1990, so the number of additional beneficiaries could not have been great – let's generously guestimate the total at 50,000.

That would make the likely amnesty component of Obama's planned unilateral edicts (there are expected to be a number of additional elements) one hundred times larger than its supposed precedent. Some precedent.