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Immigration Reform by Executive Action – Were the President’s Actions Lawful?

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Some time has now passed since President Obama announced on November 20, 2014 his intention to go it alone to “fix” of our “broken immigration system.”  Since that announcement, lawyers such as myself were hopeful that we could start working with clients on their applications for expanded relief under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”), and later this Spring under the President’s new “deferred action” program for the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (“LPR’s), commonly known as “DAPA”.

That all came to a screeching halt on February 16, 2015, when Texas federal district Judge Andrew S. Hanen granted a temporary injunction against the implementation of President Obama’s executive action regarding the DAPA program and the expansion of the President’s June 2012 DACA initiative.  The injunction temporarily blocks President Obama’s executive action aimed at providing administrative relief from removal to millions of immigrants.  President Obama has vowed to appeal.  This, of course, begs the question of whether the President’s actions were lawful.  I think they were.

A (Very) Brief History of Previous Exercises of Discretionary Relief

President Obama’s administrative action was but the latest among many of his predecessors in the Oval Office who relied on their executive authority to deal with important immigration issues during their administrations.  According to the American Immigration Council, since 1956, there have been at least thirty nine (39) instances where a president has exercised his executive authority to protect thousand and sometimes millions of immigrants, in the United States at the time without status, usually in the humanitarian interest of simply keeping families together.  So why all the fuss now?

Prosecutorial Discretion, the Immigration Law and Regulations, and the Supreme Court

DACA was established by executive action in June 2012, and was expanded by the President’s announcement in November 2014.  DAPA was first announced by the President in November 2014.  Prosecutorial discretion generally refers to the authority of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) to decide how the immigration laws should be applied, and it is a legal practice that has existed in law enforcement for quite some time.

For example, the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) and its implementing regulations are replete with examples where DHS will either refrain from an enforcement action, like electing not to serve and thereafter file a charging document (commonly known as a Notice to Appear) with the Immigration Court, as well as well as decisions to provide a discretionary remedies when an immigrant is already in removal proceedings, such as granting stays of removal, granting parole, or granting deferred action.

The INA itself authorizes the President’s legal authority to exercise prosecutorial discretion, including by prohibiting judicial review of three (3) types of actions involving the exercise of prosecutorial discretion (i.e., the decisions to commence removal proceedings, to adjudicate cases, and to execute removal orders).

Congress has also legislated deferred action in the INA itself as a means by which the executive branch may use, in the exercise of its prosecutorial discretion, to protect certain victims of crime, abuse, or human trafficking.

Notably, the INA also has a specific provision which recognizes the President’s authority to authorize employment for non-citizens who do not otherwise receive it automatically by virtue of their particular immigration status. See INA § 274A(h)(3).  It is this provision, in conjunction with other regulations, that currently confers eligibility for work authorization under DACA (and would do so again under expanded DACA and DAPA).

Beyond this, memoranda issued by federal agencies authorized to implement and enforce our nation’s immigration laws recognize prosecutorial discretion too, including a seminal one issued by legacy-Immigration and Naturalization Service “INS”) Commissioner Doris Meissner in 1990 to her senior agency staff.  There are earlier memoranda as well opining as to the legality of prosecutorial discretion too.

Finally, the Supreme Court held in Arizona v. United States that a “[a] principal feature of the [deportation] system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials. . . . Federal officials, as an initial matter, must decide whether it makes sense to pursue [deportation] at all . . . .” Arizona v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 2492, 2499 (2012).

As a result of all of the above (i.e., the INA and its implementing regulations, Supreme Court decisions, and agency memoranda), there have been at least thirty nine (39) instances since 1956 where a president has exercised his executive authority to protect aliens, generally in the interest of simply keeping families together.

So What Happens Now?

Our history is replete with examples of U.S. presidents, in the name of prosecutorial discretion, issuing directives that provided for deferred action (or whatever they may have called it at the time) to non-citizens of the United States, and indeed Judge Hanen, in his written decision, affirmed the executive branch’s right to exercise prosecutorial discretion.

Previous lawsuits against similar executive actions have failed in the past.  Indeed a similarly politically motivated lawsuit was thrown out in December 2014 when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio argued that President Obama’s announcements were unconstitutional.  In 2012, the State of Mississippi challenged the legality of DACA in a case similar to the current Texas lawsuit, and that case was dismissed because the judge found the perceived economic hardship the state claimed was purely speculative.

As I have previously argued and substantiated in this blog, studies have shown that deferred action initiatives, apart from being the right thing to do, are economically beneficial to our country.  In his decision, Judge Hanen cites the government’s “failure to secure the borders” and then goes on to support the plaintiffs’ position of supposed costs to the states without any evidence whatsoever in the record. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (“AILA”) and others have argued that Judge Hanen disregarded information submitted by the government and AILA as to the widespread economic and social benefits that the expanded DACA and DAPA programs would provide.  They’re right.

Again, the Obama Administration has indicated it will appeal, and at the same time seek a stay to the enforcement of Judge Hanen’s order.  I am cautiously optimistic that the government will prevail.  In the meantime, it’s noteworthy to point out that those who have previously been granted DACA are not at all affected by Judge Hanen’s ruling.  This ruling only delays the start of DAPA and the expansion of DACA.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

David W. Meyers, Esq. is managing partner of Meyers & Meyers, LLP. David works with individuals, businesses and higher education institutions helping them resolve any issues regarding immigration, citizenship and naturalization for themselves or their employees.

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