WaPo: Four Pinocchios for Obama on Bush 41 amnesty claim; Update: Three

Actually, Glenn Kessler gives Peak Pinocchio to both Barack Obama and his press secretary Josh Earnest for disseminating a dishonest argument intended to bolster the notion that Obama’s predecessors used executive power for amnesty. The argument actually began on Wednesday afternoon as Earnest laid out the structure of the defense:


Q What executive actions that were taken in the past regarding immigration would involve millions of people like this upcoming one?

MR. EARNEST: There are a couple of them. President George H.W. Bush — I believe this was -— I think this would have been– I’m not sure what year this was, but I can look this up for you — he expanded the family fairness program to cover more than 1.5 million unauthorized spouses and children. This represented about 40 percent of the undocumented population at the time.

On Sunday, Obama himself made the same argument on ABC’s This Week:

“If you look, every president – Democrat and Republican – over decades has done the same thing as I mentioned in my remarks,” he added. “George H. W. Bush, about 40 percent of the undocumented persons at the time were provided a similar kind of relief as a consequence of executive action.”

Everyone remembers the massive amnesty program that Bush 41 authored without Congressional authorization, right? Right? It was in all the papers — well, at least a few. The New York Times ran several stories about an action Bush 41 did take in 1990 to administer the 1986 immigration-reform bill pushed by Democrats and signed by Ronald Reagan. Glenn Kessler traces the trajectory of the Paper of Record’s speculation on how many people might be impacted by Bush’s intervention, and how it grew from 100,000 to 1.5 million on no evidence at all. The Washington Post reported the 100K figure at the time, but it got multiplied by 15 through sheer speculation:


However, the Philadelphia Inquirer said the number was possibly higher: “McNary and his top aides at the Immigration and Naturalization Service said they could not predict how many dependents would come forward, although they did not dispute estimates from immigrants’ advocacy groups of 500,000 or more. ‘There’s no way to count them. It may run to a million,’ said INS spokesman Duke Austin.”

That’s certainly not billed as a precise estimate. But big round numbers are often catnip for journalists.

That 1 million figure soon turned up in a Los Angeles Times article on Feb. 15: “Although there are no firm figures, the immigration service estimates as many as 1 million aliens could be affected by the new policy.”

On March 5, the Times ran another article on the policy shift that included this sentence: “The Federal Immigration Commissioner, Gene McNary, said recently that as many as 1.5 million illegal aliens could be affected by the new policy, called ‘family fairness,’ and intended to allow close family members of legalized immigrants to remain in the country under certain conditions.”

This is the report that the White House apparently seized like Rose grabbing a door off the Titanic, but it doesn’t support their argument at all. That’s because the actual number of applicants under Bush’s action came to just under 47,000. That’s 1/30th of the claim made by Earnest and Obama. Within a month, Kessler notes, Congress passed an amended version of the immigration law, which Bush signed, which gave an even wider window for family members to apply for deportation protection. The total number of those who applied under the new law, over a four-year period, was about 200,000 — less than 1/7th of the numbers Earnest and Obama claimed, and only about 6% of the overall illegal immigrant population at the time.


None of this was a secret, and certainly shouldn’t have been to the White House, which has access to all of this data. Apparently, all they know how to do is troll Google for any supporting argument they can find. Kessler concludes much the same thing:

To recap, the White House seized on an apparently inaccurate news report, which cited an estimate much higher than any other news organization. Meanwhile, officials ignored other contemporaneous reporting using much lower figures — as well as the actual outcome of the policy. That’s worthy of Four Pinocchios.

It’s also worthy of a large helping of scorn. Either this White House is too incompetent to do proper research, or it’s deliberately obfuscating the facts in order to demagogue on its actions, and exploiting George H. W. Bush to do it. Given the recent revelations about their key adviser Jonathan Gruber’s attitudes about honesty, transparency, and respect for the American voter, I know which way I’m leaning on that question.

Update: After I wrote this post but before it published, Kessler updated his post and reduced the Pinocchios to three.

One note: We like to have a steady publication of posts here, so other than breaking news we try to put a fixed amount of time between posts. Sometimes the news cycle forces us to reorder the posts during the day, so there can be quite a bit of time between writing and posting. Usually it’s not this much time, but …. it’s been a busy day, too.


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