On September 5, 2017, the Trump Administration announced that it would be ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) program. As if the 2016 presidential election post-mortem wasn’t bad enough, now this. This change of policy impacts almost 800,000 young people, the so-called Dreamers, who entered the United States before they were 16 years of age, generally through no fault of their own. Dreamers have temporary protection from deportation (to countries where they have had very little contact with in their lives). In many cases, these individuals also received employment authorization.
A little reminder as to what DACA is (and soon to be “was”). In June 2012, former President Obama’s then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced a program, commonly known as DACA, whereby aliens who were unlawfully present in the United States, who had been brought to the United States as children, and who met other criteria, could receive “deferred action.” These young people were basically protected, albeit temporarily, from being removed from the United States. They were able to work lawfully, attend school, and basically live their lives without the constant fear of being deported. However, unlike legislation, DACA does not provide a permanent legal status to these young people, and it needs to be renewed every two years.
Now, effective immediately, no new applications for DACA will be accepted. Current DACA beneficiaries whose status will expire before March 5, 2018 are permitted to renew their status for an additional two years if they apply by October 5, 2017. Any person for whom DACA expires as of March 6, 2018 will no longer have deferred action or employment authorization.
So how did the current state of affairs come to be? Well, then candidate Trump repeatedly pledged to end DACA (and to construct a border wall) as part of his campaign platform. Indeed, right after his inauguration, the White House prepared a draft Executive Order (which was leaked to the press) dated January 23, 2017 titled Ending Unconstitutional Executive Amnesties. The Executive Order proposed to rescind the then-proposed DAPA program immediately, which was the subject of a federal court injunction, and to also stop processing new DACA applications. So bad on top of bad.
Back in June, 2017, not seeing any movement on the President’s campaign promise, Texas and nine other states sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions stating that unless the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) agreed to “phase out” the program by rescinding Secretary Napolitano’s memo authorizing DACA and halting approval of any new or renewal DACA applications, they would take legal action to challenge DACA. President Trump caved to their demands.
In this regard, on September 4, 2017, Attorney General Sessions sent a letter to Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke stating the DACA was an “unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch” and that legal challenges to the program would “likely” result in DACA being deemed unlawful. On September 5, 2017, Acting Secretary Duke issued a memorandum officially rescinding the program.
There’s so many ways I can go with this. For today, let’s focus on Attorney General Sessions’ statement that DACA was an “unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.”
President Obama’s administrative action was, at the time, 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.
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 decisions to provide a discretionary remedy 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. It is this provision, in conjunction with other regulations, that currently confers eligibility for work authorization under DACA.
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.
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. Since his September 5, 2017 announcement ending DACA, President Trump has made positive comments about Dreamers, and now says he will “revisit” the program if Congress does not act. Let’s see if he has the political courage to do so.