Republicans have called President Obama’s executive actions on immigration illegal and imperial. Some have threatened to sue after Obama ordered work permits to be made available to nearly five million unauthorized immigrants. But Obama’s actions have plenty of precedent — it’s their scale that’s unusual.
In anticipation of Obama’s announcement, the nonpartisan American Immigration Council prepared a report detailing similar actions taken by presidents dating back to 1956. According to their count, there have been 39 comparable grants of temporary immigration relief in the past 58 years. They’ve been bipartisan too. Fifteen were enacted by Republican presidents, 20 by Democrats and four spanned the terms of presidents of both parties.
Data on the number of people affected isn’t available for some of the actions, and the best data for others is still rough (such as Reagan’s 1987 protection of some unauthorized children, for which the best estimate available is “100,000 families”), but there’s enough to give us a glimpse of just how sweeping this overhaul could be.
The number of people affected by this order is unprecedented, but that’s in part due to the similarly unprecedented size of the undocumented population as a whole. Former president George Bush’s 1990 expansion of the Immigration Reform and Control Act affected 1.5 million people, which seems to pale in comparison to Obama’s 4 million. But the nationwide undocumented population at the time was about 3.5 million, according to the Current Population Survey, meaning it affected 43 percent of that population. Bush’s executive action could actually be considered more sweeping than the one Obama announced Thursday night.
Either way, those two are the most far-reaching — by a mile — on the American Immigration Council’s list.