Immigration Expert Blasts Wash. Post's Defense Of Faulty Fact Check

Editorial And Reporting Called “Breathtakingly Short On Both Facts And Logic”

The Washington Post editorial board is contesting the Obama administration's claim that his recent executive action on immigration is similar in scope to former President George H.W. Bush's temporary administrative relief for undocumented immigrants in 1990, which reportedly affected 1.5 million family members of legalization applicants. Calling the White House's 1.5 million figure “indefensible,” the editorial also repeated the accusations of its fact checker, Glenn Kessler, who previously insisted that the figure is inflated despite contemporaneous congressional testimony to the contrary.

But now a leading immigration expert says the Post is “doubling down on a grievous error.”

According to Charles Kamasaki, Executive Vice President of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), author of a forthcoming book on the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 and its subsequent effects, and one of the leading experts on immigration law and policy in the country, the White House's citation of the 1.5 million estimate of those who stood to benefit from Bush's 1990 action is “completely defensible.”

In a December 4 letter published on the NCLR website, Kamasaki pointed out numerous mistakes in both the substance and reasoning in both the Post's editorial and fact check, and pointed out that a "'quick and dirty' analysis" that encompasses “Kessler's own reporting” demonstrates that the White House's “1.5 million estimate of ineligible family members of IRCA's legalization applicants is valid on its face”:

There's a second way of looking at this issue, which is to take the available data and see whether, independent of take-up rates, the 1.5 million estimate of ineligible family members of IRCA's legalization applicants is valid on its face. A quick analysis suggests it is eminently plausible. First, consider the number of applicants: 3.3 million people applied for IRCA's two main legalization programs, another 40,000 or so for a special Cuban-Haitian program, and perhaps 75,000 for a registry program for those who had entered prior to 1972. So we start with a base of more than 3.4 million applicants.

But these were not the only applicants potentially covered by “family fairness” in 1990. Under two major national class action lawsuits, hundreds of thousands of people claimed they had been unfairly denied the opportunity to apply for legalization because of improper eligibility rules, inaccurate information, or other reasons. The plaintiffs largely won on the merits in the lower courts, although appeals courts later denied all but a few thousand the opportunity to apply. The key point, however, is that as of 1990, when the Bush policy was announced, this litigation was still pending, and thus several hundred thousand of these class members technically were still potential applicants. Adding these potential applicants to those who had applied brings the universe of total actual and potential IRCA applicants whose ineligible family members might've been covered by family fairness into the four million range.

  • Kessler's own reporting shows that 42% of IRCA applicants were married. Multiplying four million by 42% produces a total of 1.7 million spouses. But many, arguably half, likely qualified for legalization themselves, bringing the number of spouses ineligible for legalization to perhaps 840,000.
  • How many kids might've been covered? Here we have very good data on the contemporary undocumented population, which we might apply to 1986-1990 in a backward fashion. The Migration Policy Institute estimated last year that of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, there were more than 1.9 million unauthorized youth who were brought to the country by their parents. In other words, about 17% of the current undocumented population is made up of children analogous to those who would have been covered by the Bush policy. Applying this 17% figure to the estimated 5 million undocumented population as of 1986 produces a total of about 850,000 unauthorized children.
  • Some number of those were likely older than 21 as of 1990; adjusting for this produces an estimated population of ineligible children of legalization applicants as of 1990 to perhaps 640,000. Still, 840,000 spouses added to 640,000 children equals 1.48 million, very close to the cited 1.5 million estimate.

Based on this “quick and dirty” analysis, there really were close to 1.5 million people eligible for relief in 1990, and it is a completely defensible number.

Photo of President Barack Obama announcing details of his immigration executive order in Las Vegas, NV via the White House/YouTube.