Good Policy, Bad Law: Obama Correctly Rejected Again on Immigration Reform

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has now affirmed the injunction against President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. The opinion seems daunting at 135 pages, but only just half of that is the majority opinion, and much of that consists of technical discussion. The nub of the ruling is that the 26 plaintiff states have established a “likelihood of success” on their claim that (1) the administration both violated the Administrative Procedure Act by not going through proper rulemaking channels and (2) exceeded the authority that the relevant statutes give the executive branch in enforcing immigration law. This was not a surprise given the way oral argument went – and that the two judges in the majority were also on the panel that denied the administration an emergency stay of the injunction earlier in the year – but it’s still significant.

The court cuts through the government’s obfuscation about “prosecutorial discretion” and the like, the argument that granting temporary status to millions if people is no different than a decision to prioritze deportation of murderers over those whose only violation is being in the country without authorization: Deferred action, however, is much more than nonenforcement: It would affirmatively confer ‘lawful presence’ and associated benefits on a class of unlawfully present aliens.” (35) “Moreover, if deferred action meant only nonprosecution, it would not necessarily result in lawful presence… . Declining to prosecute does not transform presence deemed unlawful by Congress into lawful presence and confer eligibility for otherwise unavailable benefits based on that change.” (36)

The court goes on to explain how the novel Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) goes against what Congress has legislated. “The interpretation of those provisions that the Secretary advances would allow him to grant lawful presence and work authorization to any illegal alien in the United States—an untenable position in light of the INA’s intricate system of immigration classifications and employment eligibility.” (62) Moreover,

because DAPA is not authorized by statute, the United States posits that its authority is grounded in historical practice, but that “does not, by itself, create power,” and in any event, previous deferred-action programs are not analogous to DAPA. “[M]ost … discretionary deferrals have been done on a country-specific basis, usually in response to war, civil unrest, or natural disasters,” but DAPA is not such a program. Likewise, many of the previous programs were bridges from one legal status to another, whereas DAPA awards lawful presence to persons who have never had a legal status and may never receive one. (63)

This analysis mirrors the argument we make in Cato’s brief regarding the proper application of deferred action historically, as a bridge between lawful statuses rather than a tunnel around under and around the immigration laws.

In short, while we wish Congress had acted to make some sense of our immigration regime, it hasn’t – and the president can’t rewrite the law even it makes good policy sense to do so.

Now, where do we go from here? If the government files a cert petition with the Supreme Court this or next week, the case could conceivably make it onto the docket as one of the last ones to be argued this term, meaning a decision the last week of June 2016. But the government may not do that – it waited an awfully long time to file its “emergency” motion to stay the district court’s injunction – in order to keep this immigration battle alive into the presidential election. Indeed, regardless whether the Supreme Court ultimately upholds or dissolves the injunction against President Obama’s executive action, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would probably rather maintain the issue as a live one – especially if, as the conventional wisdom now holds, she’ll be running against one of the Cuban-Americans running for the GOP nomination, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.

But that’s all political speculation. For the moment we have another defeat for the imperial executive and a victory for the separation of powers and the rule of law.