A Divided Court on U.S. v. Texas: A Safety Net for the Administration?

By Dennis Stinchcomb

Supreme court Scalia

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan / Flickr / Creative Commons

The passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reshuffles the deck of possible outcomes in the highly politicized case involving President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.  When the White House petitioned the Court to review its dispute with Texas and 25 other states, it could not have imagined a result that now appears to be possible: a tie.  An evenly split decision would mean that the injunction against the measures issued by the lower court – the Fifth Circuit – would stand, an outcome that critics of Obama’s executive actions would herald as a triumph.  It may, however, also prove to be a safety net for the Administration and the over five million undocumented immigrants whose status is at stake because the law stipulates that a tie vote is not precedent-setting.  That means that the underlying case would proceed to trial in Texas district court – and could then potentially find its way back onto the Supreme Court’s docket, perhaps under more favorable conditions for a future Democratic administration.

This is, of course, purely speculative as a complex web of scenarios remain in play, including:

  • A 5-3 Decision in Favor of the Administration: If the Court finds that the states do not have the right (or standing) to sue the President, the case will be immediately dismissed.  A decision recognizing the states’ right to sue would force the Court to address the other two matters at stake – whether the President’s actions are consistent with existing immigration law, and whether he met the requirements for public notice and comment.  Some experts believe that members of the Court’s conservative wing may side with the Administration on these questions, striking down the injunction and allowing the deferred action programs to proceed.
  • A 3-5 Decision in Favor of Texas: A majority ruling against the Administration seems most plausible on the constitutional issue of whether the President abdicated his responsibility to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”  Though the Court had appended the separation-of-powers question to the roster of issues under consideration, it is under no obligation to hand down such a wide-reaching decision.  But should the case become a constitutional showdown, it is not inconceivable that a member of the Court’s liberal bloc might side with conservatives to prevent what would amount to be a significant expansion of executive authority – and an undermining of the judiciary’s ability to curb excesses.  Observers say it is less likely that a liberal would find the Administration in violation of immigration law or public notification procedures.

Beyond the struggle between the President and his opponents in the U.S. Senate over whether a successor to Scalia should be confirmed this year, the prospect of a tie in U.S. v. Texas and the potential for a rematch down the road has raised the stakes in this U.S. election year.  Candidates from both parties have been calling on voters to transform the November election into a referendum on the Supreme Court.  At least on the immigration front, the presidential nominees and voters alike will have to wait until the Court announces its decision in mid-summer to find out what exactly has been won or lost, and what more can be done or undone.  Though a tie would leave open the door for the legal merits of the case to be revisited by a full complement of justices under a new president during a non-election year, such a scenario is hardly ideal for the outgoing Administration.  The possibility that victory in the short-term for immigration conservatives could translate into a permanent victory should the Republican nominee win the presidency is a gamble the Administration would rather not face. 

 February 29, 2016

 

U.S. Immigration: In Need of Procedural Reform Too

By Maya Barak*

Photo Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr / Creative Commons

Migrants appear unlikely to get relief soon from President Obama’s appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn the November decision of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to continue blocking his 2014 executive actions on immigration.  With the injunction still in place, the President cannot go ahead with expansion of the President’s programs for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the creation of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA).  Assuming that the court will grant the case a writ of certiorari (which is not certain), it is unlikely to hear it before June 2016 – at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign.  Furthermore, as AULABLOG has reported, even if the Supreme Court upholds the President’s authorities on DACA and DAPA, it would also be confirming his successor’s power to reverse them.  The next President could easily terminate these actions, leaving many DACA and DAPA recipients in a precarious legal state.  Immigrants, activists, and scholars alike are following the Democratic and Republican primaries with baited breath.

While the uncertainty demoralizes immigrants and their attorneys, so too do the many procedural problems they face.  In 45 in-depth interviews I have conducted over the past two years with Central American immigrants and their lawyers, the need for procedural reform ranked high among the concerns of attorneys.

  • The processes of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, or “immigration court,” are the subject of strident complaints. Good and affordable legal representation and guidance are lacking.  Cultural and linguistic barriers preclude adequate communication between immigrants and judges in the courtroom, as well as between immigrants and asylum officers.  Videoteleconferences during removal (deportation) hearings, wherein the immigrant – and in some cases the judge – appear in a “virtual” courtroom via a two-way video, are often characterized by poor sound quality and shoddy images.
  • Detention during removal proceedings pose particularly serious difficulties for migrants and their attorneys. Accessing legal representation, case information, and necessary documents such as passports or birth certificates is extremely difficult.  Detention centers are often in distant rural areas, far from attorneys.
  • Immigration court backlogs have skyrocketed in recent years, with many courts scheduling hearings as far out as 2020 – forcing immigrants to put their lives “on hold,” unable to obtain a driver’s license or permission to work.

Despite these problems, immigrants say they feel listened to and respected by interpreters, judges, and government attorneys, which increases their belief in the legitimacy of the immigration system.  As problematic as the procedural issues are, immigrants’ greatest concern is that U.S. law as it currently stands does not afford the vast majority pathways to legalization.  Immigrants who truly want to be law-abiding – attracted to the U.S. because it is a country where the “rule of law” exists – regret that they must violate the law to escape the violent and unstable countries from which they come.  Immigration reform and procedural reform are complementary objectives and should go hand-in-hand.  While attorneys’ fixation with due process is understandable, so are immigrants’ desires for a chance to fully (and legally) participate in American society.  Just as U.S. political infighting has prevented comprehensive immigration reform and delayed – and could kill – implementation of DAPA and DACA, so too do the prospects for procedural reforms look bleak as the country enters an extremely political year.

January 14, 2016

* Maya Barak is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in Justice, Law and Criminology.

Judicial Activism Prolongs Immigrants’ Angst

By Maya Barak*

Photo Credit: Justin Valas and David Schexnaydre / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Justin Valas and David Schexnaydre / Flickr / Creative Commons

Legal maneuvering to block President Obama’s executive actions on immigration is keeping up to 4 million undocumented immigrants in limbo and, with the U.S. election campaign gaining momentum, dims prospects for them to participate in society more fully and openly anytime soon.  Texas and 25 other states filed suit in February hoping to overturn Obama’s expansion of his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and creation of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA).  A panel of three judges for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (New Orleans), one of the most conservative courts in the country, heard the case in July, but the case is still pending – and the court’s temporary injunction remains in place.  Observers call their behavior judicial activism because the panel has deliberately eschewed its normal practice of 60-day decisions in order to prevent a rapid appeal by the Obama administration from reaching the Supreme Court during the Court’s current term.  The deadline for appeals to the Supreme Court was October 23.

If the courts – the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (unlikely) or the Supreme Court (unknown), ultimately decide in favor of the Obama orders, DACA and DAPA would permit undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. prior to 16 years of age and have lived in the U.S. continuously since 2010, along with eligible parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, to apply for temporary relief from removal (deportation) and a work permit for three years.  In any case, the next President, who takes office in January 2017, could terminate the actions, throwing applicants for DACA and DAPA protections back into a precarious legal state – with their identities and whereabouts registered with immigration authorities and lacking relief from deportability.  A Central American asylee told me his immigration process, if all goes well, will have taken him 21 years.  “That’s a lifetime,” he said.  “To really feel like a citizen, like this is my home, that they can’t kick me out … So that’s where the system is failing me, is failing us.”

The delay for President Obama’s executive actions to take effect is just one of many lengthy waits individuals, both with and without legal status, experience while caught up in the U.S. immigration system.  Wait times for visa applicants can extend into the double digits – more than 20 years for family-sponsored visas for Filipinos, for example.  Not only are the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the State Department, which are primarily responsible for visa processing, backed up; the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the nation’s immigration court system, is experiencing multi-year delays as well.  Fifty-nine immigration courts handle an average of 300,000-400,000 cases per year.  Detained immigrants spend months in detention waiting for hearing continuances and final hearings, while non-detained immigrants spend years awaiting their final case outcomes.  These individuals are forced to put their lives on hold, not sure if they will be allowed to stay or forced to leave, many unable to obtain work permits or driver’s licenses.  The expansion of DACA and creation of DAPA would alleviate some of the tension on America’s overburdened immigration system while individuals around the country and the world await meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform.  In the meantime, agencies managing U.S. immigration have little incentive and too few resources to speed up processing.  Like millions of immigrants, they are simply biding time.

October 29, 2015

* Maya Barak is  PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in Justice, Law and Criminology.

U.S. Immigration Reform: Stuck Again

By Aaron T. Bell

Steve Rhodes / Flickr / Creative Commons

Steve Rhodes / Flickr / Creative Commons

Opponents of the Obama administration’s executive actions on immigration – measures the President announced last November – have successfully blocked their implementation, setting the stage for a renewed political battle over the issue during next year’s U.S. elections.  Citing frustration with congressional inaction on immigration, Obama had announced that he would use his authority to expand the age limit of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which temporarily defers deportation and allows undocumented immigrants to work, and to create a similar program for the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.  Twenty-six states, led by Texas, filed a lawsuit in response, claiming that Obama violated a constitutional requirement to enforce the law and that he committed a technical violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  On February 16, the day before DACA was set to expand, a federal judge in Texas issued an injunction on the executive action programs.  The administration filed for a temporary stay of the injunction, which would allow it to begin implementing the programs while the court weighed their legality, but two weeks ago a Court of Appeals panel turned it down.  A long legal process in the 5th Circuit Appeals Court (based in Louisiana) will follow.

Despite this setback, recent precedents suggest that the Administration may yet win its case.  Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an outspoken opponent of reform, filed a lawsuit against the administration shortly after Obama announced his executive action, but a federal judge threw out the case in December on the grounds that Arpaio had not suffered direct injury from these actions and was thus ineligible to file suit.  Two months ago the 5th Circuit, which has a conservative reputation, unanimously dismissed a lawsuit filed by Mississippi and several Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers that challenged the original DACA program.  As in the Arpaio suit, the court reasoned that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to bring the case, and – rejecting an argument also embraced by the Texas lawsuit that Obama’s executive action will cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in processing fees for driver’s licenses – the court recognized the economic benefits of the DACA program.  Fourteen states and the District of Columbia filed a brief in court in favor of the government’s case arguing that Texas and its co-plaintiffs have underestimated the fiscal benefits of the executive action programs.

Although the Courts may in the end reject the arguments of Obama’s opponents, they can claim at least short-term success.  Implementation has come to a complete halt, and immigration activists worry that the longer the legal process drags out, the less willing undocumented immigrants will be to apply to the programs and increase their risk of future deportation.  A subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court may push the executive actions back to mid-2016, reinvigorating immigration reform as a campaign issue just as election season is heating up.  Pew Research announced last week that its most recent polling data show that 72 percent of Americans support a path to legal citizenship for undocumented workers in the country, including 56 percent of Republicans.  Presumptive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has already pledged her support for reforms that go further than what Obama has tried to accomplish.  Republican candidates have slammed the President’s executive actions as “overreach” but are divided on where to go from there.  Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio have expressed support for a legislative replacement for DACA, while Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have said they would make reversing Obama’s executive actions on immigration one of their first acts as president.  Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently expressed a desire to limit legal immigration as well in order to protect American jobs. Delaying immigration reform may ultimately put the Republican Party’s candidates in a difficult position next year.  If Obama’s executive action benefits family and friends of tens of thousands of Latino immigrants in the months preceding the November elections, the weak Hispanic voter turnout for Democratic candidates in the 2014 midterms is likely to be replaced by enthusiastic and potentially decisive support for a Democratic presidency, particularly if the Republican candidate focuses on appealing to the party’s nativist faction.

June 6, 2015

Turning the Tide on Deportations?

By Dennis Stinchcomb

Photo courtesy of ICE

Photo courtesy of ICE

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) recently released statistics showing that deportations in fiscal year 2013 hit an all-time low since Obama took office in 2009, but the drop is apparently not yet a harbinger of a policy shift.  Removals fell slightly from a record high of 410,000 in 2012 to just under 370,000.  News of the first decline during Obama’s tenure comes as he has been under growing pressure from immigration advocates and some members of Congress to use his executive powers to bring removals to a halt.  But the slight decline can be attributed to several factors:

  • First, the administration has encouraged the use of “prosecutorial discretion,” which is the agency’s authority to enforce the law against a particular individual as it wishes, and has prioritized the deportation of violent criminal offenders and others deemed to be “national security threats.”  The removal of convicted criminals – a category that conflates those convicted of aggravated felonies and misdemeanor crimes – is more time- and resource-intensive, thus reducing the overall total of deportees.
  • A demographic shift in recent border crossers has contributed to the decline.  In fiscal year 2012, 71,527 of the recent border crossers removed by ICE were from countries other than Mexico (i.e., Central America).  In fiscal year 2013, this number rose by 27 percent to 90,461.  According to ICE, this triggered an increase in the use of ICE’s detention and removal resources because the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, responsible for many deportations, is only able to return individuals to Mexico.  (In 2010, Guatemalans represented 9 percent (or 29,378) of deportees; in 2013, they made up 13 percent (or 47,769) of all removals. Much the same can be said for Honduras and El Salvador.)
  • The president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy has also reduced deportation figures by granting reprieves to more than 450,000 of the “Dreamers.”

Though positive, the relatively small decrease does little to offset the Obama administration’s staggering deportation totals – 1.8 million since February 2009.  Nor does it signal an attempt to reverse course in light of the rapidly approaching 2 million mark.  The Obama administration is undoubtedly walking a political tightrope on the issue.  It is pressured by the right not to appear lax on enforcement, while many on the left want the president to sidestep a deadlocked Congress and loosen up on removals – a move Obama himself has characterized as executive overreach.  As the deportation rate remains steady, Obama risks eroding the support of Latinos, an increasingly powerful segment of the electorate.  So pervasive is the fear of deportation that, in a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Latinos said protection from deportation was more important than a pathway to citizenship.  This would suggest that lawmakers might eventually be open to allowing undocumented immigrants to attain legal status even without a chance to naturalize.  Some 205,000 U.S. citizen children lost a parent because of deportations between July 2010 and September 2012 alone, and a growing number of them face the prospect of having to accompany a deported parent back to Central America, potentially increasing the political urgency for a fix to the country’s broken immigration system.