WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's unilateral actions on immigration stand out from those of his predecessors because of the sheer scope of what he's doing and the political tenor of the times.
Immigration was a far less contentious issue when President Ronald Reagan acted with Congress and on his own to grant legal status — yes, amnesty — to some 3 million immigrants who had been living in the U.S. illegally. Another Republican president, George H.W. Bush, built substantially on what Reagan had done, also with little fuss across the land.
In contrast, the legal protection that Obama is extending to as many as 5 million immigrants by executive action reaches far more people and comes without the bipartisan consensus — if not the bipartisan yawn — that characterized some of the past actions of presidents. Obama's steps are not merely "the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican president and every single Democratic president for the past half century," as the president described them in his prime-time immigration remarks this week.
In the current, roiling debate, Obama is sidestepping a prominent past critic of executive action on immigration fixes — himself. And Republican leaders in Congress, who have taken to calling Obama a self-styled emperor, may not be giving due regard to what presidents from their own ranks have done on their own about illegal immigration. House Speaker John Boehner went so far as to say Obama "cemented his legacy of lawlessness."
THE REAGAN AMNESTY
In 1986, Congress and Reagan acted together in the usual way — a bill signed into law — legalizing the status of up to 3 million immigrants if they had come to the U.S. before 1982. Left unresolved: the status of spouses and children of those immigrants. They still faced deportation if they had not been in the country long enough.
In 1987, the Reagan administration, on its own, extended legal protection to the minor children of parents who qualified for the amnesty. Still in limbo: families in which one spouse qualified for amnesty but the other spouse or child did not.
THE BUSH FIX
In early 1990, the Bush administration acted unilaterally with a "family fairness" policy letting family members living with a legalizing immigrant stay and work in the country, as long as they had arrived before passage of the 1986 law. Up to 1.5 million people stood to gain from this. Congress made the protections permanent in a broader immigration law before the end of the year.
THE FIRST OBAMA FIX
In 2012, Obama used executive action to curb deportation of certain immigrants brought illegally to the country as children. More than 600,000 young have already been shielded by that.
As efforts to pass an immigration overhaul stumbled in Congress, advocates pressed Obama to do more by himself. But he repeatedly begged off, citing the circumscribed authority of a president even in taking limited steps. He said he was bound by the laws of Congress: "I'm not a king."
How about protecting the parents of the young people who were granted a reprieve from deportation in 2012? Could their deportations be frozen by executive action, too? "Not an option," Obama said in September 2013. That would be "ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally."
THE SECOND OBAMA FIX
With an immigration overhaul facing impossible odds in Congress, the midterm elections behind him and a promise to Hispanic voters to keep, Obama has shed his reluctance to go it alone, in ways that test the very limits of presidential power he once said tied his hands.
His package falls far short of what Congress could do, but follows the contours of comprehensive legislation as it reshapes the ground rules for law enforcement, businesses and more.
Protection from deportation and the right to work are being extended to an estimated 4.1 million parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years and to hundreds of thousands more young people. Others who have committed no crime apart from immigration violations are likely to benefit, too, as deportation priorities shift further to those with a criminal past.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner, Alicia A. Caldwell and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.