President Dwight Eisenhower did it three times. President Richard Nixon did it once. President Gerald Ford did it twice. President Ronald Reagan did it four times. President George H.W. Bush did it six times. President George W. Bush did it four times. All of these Republican presidents used the executive powers of the presidency to establish national immigration enforcement policies and priorities.

As explained by Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger, since Congress provides only enough resources to deport about 400,000 illegal immigrants per year, they directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish "national immigration enforcement policies and priorities" (6 U.S. Code 202) for deportation. In fact, presidents have been modifying immigration policies for decades.


Mark Noferi of the American Immigration Council writes that executive orders by presidents Reagan and Bush senior were the model for Obama's recent executive order.

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act that allowed 3 million illegal immigrants permission to stay in the United States. The problem with the new law was that it did not include people's spouses or children. In response to the lack of action by Congress to fix this problem, and supported by the U.S. Catholic Bishops who urged Reagan to act with "great moral urgency," Reagan used his executive powers to stop the deportation of children if their parents were covered under the 1986 act.

The Senate tried to fix the problem in 1989 and voted 81 to 17 to approve a bi-partisan bill protecting children and spouses from deportation if one of the parents was a U.S. citizen. But the House would not pass the bill. In response, Bush senior carried out the intent of the bill by executive order in 1990. Bush called his order the "family fairness" policy, which allowed children and spouses of legal immigrants to remain in the U.S. as long as they reapplied for extensions each year.

According to Noferi, Bush's executive order "amounted to over 40 percent of the 3.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. at the time." This is similar to the proportion of immigrants affected by Obama's order announced last Thursday evening. "The success of the Reagan-Bush family fairness policy serves as a strikingly similar historical precedent for Obama. The Reagan-Bush fairness policy deferred deportations to protect families" just as previous presidents used their executive authority "to protect war refugees or immigrants stranded by a foreign policy crisis" wrote Noferi.

Over one year ago the Senate once again passed a bi-partisan bill to fix the problem of separating families by deportation. This time, however, there are enough votes in the House to pass the bill, but House Speaker John Boehner refuses to allow the bill to be voted on because he knows it will pass and upset the conservative wing of his party. This is why immigration reform has been stalled in Congress.

Republicans are not upset with Obama's executive order because of their stated concerns of executive abuse of power, but because the issue of immigration reform deeply divides them. Having won a majority in the Senate to go along with their majority in the House, the last thing Republican congressional leaders want is another internal war over immigration reform prior to the 2016 national elections.

Republicans currently have the votes to pass an immigration reform bill and, as stated by Obama, they can do so at any time. That will not happen, according to Andrew Sullivan, because a compromise bill on immigration would "split the GOP in two." Sullivan writes that it is better for them to "recast the debate around whether Obama is a lawless dictator." According to The American Presidency Project, however, Obama has issued fewer executive orders than any president going back over 117 years to President Grover Cleveland. Obama's annual rate of 34 executive orders compares favorably with 36 by Bush senior, 41 by Bush junior, 47 by Reagan, and 60 by Eisenhower.

History is a wonderful resource for helping us keep current events in perspective.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. His column appears on Wednesdays. Email him at