by Ilya Somin, Professor of Law, George Mason University School of Law; author of The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain (University of Chicago Press).
The Obama administration’s immigration policy deferring deportation for more than four million illegal immigrants has been the focus of extensive constitutional debate since it was announced last fall. One conservative federal trial judge has ruled that the policy is unconstitutional, and another has concluded that it violates the Administrative Procedure Act, on the basis of arguments that suggest it is likely unconstitutional as well. Despite these rulings, the Obama policy is constitutional, and appellate courts would do well to uphold it. Ironically, the case for it is particularly strong if we accept two principles that many of the policy’s conservative critics strongly support in other contexts: the unitary executive and limiting the scope of congressional power as close as possible to its original meaning. At the same time, the Obama policy highlights the dangers posed by executive discretion in a world where there is far more federal law than any administration can effectively enforce.
In many ways, the administration policy is simply an exercise of longstanding executive discretion in deciding when to enforce federal laws. There are more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, and no administration is likely to deport more than a small fraction of them. Similarly, scholars estimate that a majority of Americans have violated federal criminal law at some point in their lives. Only a small fraction of these offenders are ever prosecuted. The executive generally has broad discretion to decide which suspected lawbreakers to go after and which ones to ignore.
Many of the administration’s critics claim that, by choosing not to enforce deportation against a large category of aliens, Obama is violating the Take Care Clause of the Constitution, which requires the president to “take care that the laws are faithfully executed.” But whatever else that Clause might mean, it surely does not require the president to enforce every federal law to the hilt, especially in a world where it would be literally impossible to even come close to doing so. Otherwise, virtually every president would be in constant violation of the Clause.
Both judicial rulings against the Obama policy emphasize that it goes beyond ordinary executive discretion because it replaces “case by case” discretion with a general rule imposed by the president that categorically excludes broad categories of aliens from deportation. The categories in question cover numerous undocumented migrants who are either parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, or entered the U.S. as children. As Judge Arthur Schwab put it in the first ruling, the policy “provides for a systematic and rigid process by which a broad group of individuals will be treated differently from others… rather than case-by-case examination.” But the difference between case by case examination and categorical rules is one of degree rather than kind. Unless case by case discretion is completely arbitrary, it must be guided by some sort of generalizable criteria, such as the severity of the offense or the danger posed by the offender. And if such general rules can be applied by low-level law enforcement offenders handling particular cases, they can also be applied systematically by the president. After all, lower-level law enforcement officials are ultimately merely the president’s agents and subordinates.