“What about Reagan in 1987? And George H.W. Bush in 1990?”

This has become a favorite Democratic and center-left rebuttal to Republicans angry at reports that President Obama may soon grant residency and working papers to as many as 5 million illegal aliens. If Obama acts, he’d rely on precedents set by Republican predecessors. Surely that should disbar today’s Republicans from complaining?

Surely not, and for four reasons.

1) Reagan and Bush acted in conjunction with Congress and in furtherance of a congressional purpose. In 1986, Congress passed a full-blown amnesty, the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, conferring residency rights on some 3 million people. Simpson-Mazzoli was sold as a “once and for all” solution to the illegal immigration problem: amnesty now, to be followed by strict enforcement in future. Precisely because of their ambition, the statute’s authors were confounded when their broad law generated some unanticipated hard cases. The hardest were those in which some members of a single family qualified for amnesty, while others did not. Nobody wanted to deport the still-illegal husband of a newly legalized wife. Reagan’s (relatively small) and Bush’s (rather larger) executive actions tidied up these anomalies. Although Simpson-Mazzoli itself had been controversial, neither of these follow-ups was.

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