Wash. Post Digs In Its Heels On Botched Immigration Fact Check

The Washington Post is helping a former official from President George H.W. Bush's administration walk back his 1990 congressional testimony that Bush's executive action on immigration could have helped up to 1.5 million people and using that to decry the Obama administration's use of the figure to justify its upcoming immigration action. But the official, then-Federal Immigration Commissioner Gene McNary, was the person who introduced the 1.5 million figure, and an immigration expert's analysis of immigration numbers at the time shows that the figure is plausible.

White House Says George H.W. Bush's Immigration Executive Action Covered 1.5 Million Immigrants

White House: 1.5 Million Undocumented Immigrants Were Eligible Under 1990 Executive Action. Responding to a question about whether past executive actions on immigration “would involve millions of people like this upcoming one,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest noted that George H.W. Bush had “expanded the family fairness program to cover more than 1.5 million unauthorized spouses and children” and that it “represented about 40 percent of the undocumented population at the time.” [WhiteHouse.gov, 11/19/14]

Wash. Post Helps McNary Walk Back His 1.5 Million Estimate

Wash. Post Fact Checker Forced To Correct Post On Scope Of Obama's Immigration Executive Action. In a November 24 post on The Washington Post's Fact Checker blog, Glenn Kessler labeled the administration's claims that the 1990 executive action by President George H.W. Bush affected 1.5 million undocumented immigrants suspect. He said the figure was a “rounded-up estimate” from “a single news article” that misleadingly included people who were not eligible to be legalized at the time due to pending applications or appeals. Kessler's argument sparked significant criticism after other media noted that then-Federal Immigration Commissioner Gene McNary testified in 1990 that 1.5 million undocumented immigrants would be covered by the policy. Kessler downgraded his assessment of the original claim from “Four Pinocchios” to “Three Pinocchios” and updated his post to note the discovery of McNary's testimony. [Media Matters, 11/24/14]

Wash. Post Updates: Source Of The Number “Is Fairly Certain He Never Used That Figure.” Kessler updated his original post to note McNary's testimony and include comment from McNary, who said he did not recall using the 1.5 million figure. Kessler concluded that the figure “appears to be a random one-off comment, apparently never repeated by McNary or any other Bush administration official” :

McNary initially told The Fact Checker that he is fairly certain he never used that figure. “I was surprised it was 1.5 million when I read that” in the recent news reports, he said. “I would take issue with that. I don't think that's factual.”

We then obtained the full testimony of a congressional hearing at which McNary testified, on Feb. 21, about three weeks after the initial announcement of 100,000. In one section, shown below, McNary appears to confirm the 1.5 million figure.

But the exchange is confusing because it also appears to refer to an earlier exchange at the hearing concerning a different category of 1.5 million people. Moreover, McNary goes on to say the potential universe of affected people could be as much as 3 million, which is certainly surprising, given that was the estimate of all undocumented immigrants in 1990. The entire transcript is embedded at the end of this column.

McNary said that, 25 years later, he was puzzled by the exchange. “I can't remember saying 1.5 million. I don't even remember testifying on the subject,” he said. “The 1.5 million does not fit with the other facts,” he said, including the INS estimate of 100,000 at the time of the announcement. He suspects the exchange was based on a misunderstanding with his questioner, then-Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.): “Morrison was trying to get a figure out of me, and I guess I gave him one.”

The figure did not appear in McNary's prepared text that day. It appears to be a random one-off comment, apparently never repeated by McNary or any other Bush administration official. [The Washington Post, 11/24/14 (emphasis added)]

Wash. Post Doubles Down On Dismissing 1.5 Million Figure: “It Is Increasingly Clear That The Sweeping Magnitude Of Mr. Obama's Order Is Unprecedented.” The Washington Post doubled down on Kessler's criticism of the administration's claims in a December 3 editorial. The Post claimed that “it is increasingly clear that the sweeping magnitude of Mr. Obama's order is unprecedented” and that the figure was likely “wildly exaggerated” and based on a “misunderstanding at the time.” The editorial noted that McNary “told Mr. Kessler he believes the number is false and was based on a misunderstanding” :

Central to the administration's argument is its contention that the 4 million covered by the president's order -- some 36 percent of the estimated undocumented population of 11 million -- is in line with the percentage covered by a comparable action by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.


However, as The Post's Glenn Kessler has scrupulously reported, there is every reason to believe that the estimate is wildly exaggerated and based mainly on what appears to have been a misunderstanding at the time.

When the measure was announced, Bush administration officials estimated the number who would be affected at around 100,000. While that was followed by some fuzziness and upward revisions, the actual number affected by the 1990 order was clearly a fraction -- perhaps a couple of hundred thousand people, at most -- of the 1.5 million that Obama administration officials have cited.

Even the apparent original source of the 1.5 million figure -- Gene McNary, who led the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time -- told Mr. Kessler he believes the number is false and was based on a misunderstanding from testimony he gave to Congress. And no underlying data or methodology to justify the 1.5 million figure has been uncovered. [The Washington Post, 12/3/14]

But McNary Himself Introduced The 1.5 Million Estimate In His Testimony

McNary Testified That 1.5 Million Undocumented Immigrants Were Covered By Bush's Executive Action. McNary testified before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law on February 21, 1990, just weeks after Bush's executive action, also known as the “family fairness policy,” was announced. During the hearing, Rep. Bill McCollum (R-FL) asked McNary if he had “any estimates of how many people we are talking about who are the immediate relatives legalized under the IRCA Act,” and McNary replied, “we are talking about 1.5 million.” Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-CT) later referenced the “recent administrative order” and asked McNary whether “1.5 million IRCA relatives who are undocumented” were “covered by your family fairness policy.” McNary affirmed this number:

McNary Testimony Part 1


McNary Testimony Part 2

[House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, 2/21/90; PolitiFact, 11/24/14]

And An Immigration Expert Said The 1.5 Million Figure Is Valid

NCLR's Charles Kamasaki: “There Really Were Close To 1.5 Million People Eligible For Relief In 1990.” In a letter posted on the National Council of La Raza's blog, NCLR Executive Vice President Charles Kamaski, author of a forthcoming book about the 1986 immigration reform law and its effects, criticized the Post's attacks on the Obama administrations claims and explained how the administration's use of McNary's estimate that 1.5 million people were covered by the 1990 executive action is “completely defensible” :

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. [Media Matters, 12/4/14]