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.