by Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, the Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar and Clinical Professor of Law, Penn State Law; author of Beyond Deportation: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Cases (NYU Press 2015)
Early Tuesday, January 19, 2016 the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of United States v. Texas, a largely political lawsuit brought by a faction of 26 states challenging the legality of two programs announced by President Obama on November 20, 2014. Specifically, the high court agreed to hear arguments on the following issues: “(1) Whether a state that voluntarily provides a subsidy to all aliens with deferred action has Article III standing and a justiciable cause of action under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to challenge the Secretary of Homeland Security’s guidance seeking to establish a process for considering deferred action for certain aliens because it will lead to more aliens having deferred action; (2) whether the guidance is arbitrary and capricious or otherwise not in accordance with law; (3) whether the guidance was subject to the APA’s notice-and-comment procedures; and (4) whether the guidance violates the Take Care Clause of the Constitution, Article II, section 3.” Rulings on the first three of those issues were requested by the government; the fourth issue was raised on the Court's own initiative. On November 9, 2015, by a 2-1 majority, a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Administration.
The executive actions being challenged by states are coined as an expansion of “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) and the creation of "Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Residents” (DAPA). These actions would expand a pre-existing deferred action program for young people and create a new program for qualifying parents who have resided in the United States for at least five years. Deferred action is a form (among more than a dozen forms) of prosecutorial discretion in immigration law. When prosecutorial discretion is exercised favorably towards a person, the government (in this case Department of Homeland Security or DHS, the agency whom Congress has specifically delegated to administer and enforce the immigration laws) abstains from bringing a legally valid immigration charge against a person or group of persons. Prosecutorial discretion exists for humanitarian reasons to the extent the individual bear positive equities like intellectual promise or the position as a primary caregiver to a family; and for economic reasons as DHS has limited resources and the responsibility to target its enforcement against true priorities. This dual activity of enforcing the immigration laws against high priorities and exercising prosecutorial discretion favorably towards others lies at the core of the Take Care Clause which I have described in earlier work in the following way:
Importantly, the President’s faithful execution of the immigration laws is not just limited to bringing enforcement actions against individuals and ultimately deporting them, but also to prioritizing the deportable population in a cost-effective and conscientious manner, and providing benefits to deportable noncitizens when they qualify for them. The President must “walk and chew gum” at the same time to carry out an effective immigration policy.
Apart from the deferred action programs is another memo announced on November 20, 2014 entitled “Policies for Apprehension, Detention, and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants.” These policies identify priorities for removal which include but are not limited to those with criminal histories, recent entrants, and those with removal orders issued on or after January 1, 2014. This memo is operational today and has sparked great debate and controversy since the Administration’s announcement to conduct raids against Central American families and unaccompanied children who seemingly fall within these priorities. This same memo contains a primer on the use of prosecutorial discretion, but immigration attorneys and advocates have criticized its actual implementation since its inception.
All eyes are on the United States Supreme Court to make a decision that is based on the law and that falls on the right side of the history. The Court will have to first decide whether or not the states have standing to challenge the President’s deferred action programs. If the case reaches the merits stage, the Court should affirm the President’s legal authority to operate deferred action programs that enable qualifying families and young people to reside temporarily in the United States with dignity and without a constant fear of deportation.