President Donald Trump’s executive order barring immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, along with comments made about people entering the U.S. from Mexico, ignited a firestorm over U.S. immigration policy.

Immigration policies on Presidential platforms have changed drastically since September 11, 2001. Prior to then, most Oval Office occupants in the last few decades focused on helping those already here illegally achieve legal status, and on improving the process for entry into the country. In the aftermath of 9/11, the emphasis shifted to national security and tighter controls at points of entry.

Trump’s EOs are not the first time a president has taken action to limit entry for people from a particular country after a particular threat, but blanket actions against several countries (or a religion) have been outlawed for more than 50 years, when the quota system by nationality was abolished.

Here is a look at the immigration policy platforms and key actions of the last five U.S. presidents:

Barack Obama Immigration Policy

Obama planned to frame immigration policy reform in 2009 around paths for illegal immigrants to gain legal status. But, considering immigration reform to be a political minefield, his administration focused on health care and other domestic concerns (along with the continuing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq). He did defer deportation for millions living in the country illegally. In 2011, after a failed plot by Iraqi immigrants living in Kentucky, his state department quietly stopped processing Iraqi immigration requests for six months, but did not pull those already granted.

George W. Bush Immigration Policy

When Bush was elected, the Spanish-speaking former border state governor viewed immigration as beneficial to the U.S. economy. Accordingly, he called for a temporary worker program and a faster pathway to citizenship. Believing that the growing Hispanic population could become an important voting bloc, Bush weighed plans to enable three million Mexicans living illegally in the country to earn permanent legal residency, and he met five times with Mexico’s newly elected president in his first nine months. Post 9/11, the Patriot Act changed the administration’s focus to tighter screening, better data sharing between law enforcement agencies, tightened document security, as well as foreign student and entry-exit tracking systems.

Bill Clinton Immigration Policy

Clinton introduced an immigration reform package in 1993 that included amendments to the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) to deal with smuggling and asylum abuse, and increase funding for border enforcement. It also extended anti-racketeering crime sanctions dealing with smuggling of aliens.

George H.W. Bush Immigration Policy

With Congress stalled on immigration reform to protect children and spouses from deportation, Bush implemented the provisions during his first year. The “family fairness” policy kept dependents in the country while parents were legalizing, deferring deportations for an estimated 40 percent of unauthorized immigrants and ultimately providing more families a path to citizenship.

Ronald Reagan Immigration Policy

In a speech recognizing the country’s immigrant heritage and the Cuban influx at the start of his term, Reagan created a task force in 1981 to create more effective immigration policies. Later in his administration, Reagan signed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that tightened security at the Mexican border and enacted strict penalties for firms employing undocumented workers. It also made immigrants who entered the U.S. prior to 1982 eligible for amnesty.

Jimmy Carter Immigration Policy

Carter emphasized human rights in his foreign policy. In his first year, he too proposed legislation to grant legalization to the undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. Later in his term, during the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis, his administration did bar some Iranians from entering the country, primarily students and tourists. There were humanitarian and business-related exceptions allowed.
Of note, one of the biggest immigration reforms took place under President Lyndon B. Johnson when he signed legislation ending discrimination against immigrants on the basis of national origin, giving each country an equal shot at the entry quotas set in place in 1924, which ignominiously thwarted Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler and slowed or stopped immigration from many countries.


US Immigration Policy since 9/11 – Migration Policy Institute

Foreign Policy: Sorry, Mr. President: The Obama Administration Did Nothing Similar to Your Immigration Ban

President Bush’s Plan For Comprehensive Immigration Reform


Bush calls for relaxed immigration rules

When Reagan and GHW Bush took bold executive action on immigration

Trump’s Immigration Ban Is Illegal

FactCheck: Obama’s Actions ‘Same’ as Past Presidents?

New York Times: Obama to Push Immigration Bill as One Priority

Center for Immigration Studies: Immigration Reform Gains Momentum

The American Presidency Project: Ronald Reagan