Federal Judge Stops Obama Immigration Policy

A federal district court in Texas made headlines earlier this week by issuing an injunction that prohibits the Obama administration from continuing to implement the immigration policy reforms the President announced late last year.  The decision, which find’s Mr. Obama’s actions in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), sets the tone for what will likely be a long legal battle that may require the Supreme Court to settle.

Texas Federal Judge Stops Obama’s Immigration Policy

In November of 2014, President Obama announced that he would instruct the Department of Homeland Security to withhold prosecution against the millions of undocumented immigrants living in America, allowing them to “come out from the shadows” and begin the path towards citizenship.  The President’s amnesty by non-prosecution set off a firestorm of political controversy, with opponents on the Right accusing the Executive of overstepping authority in unilaterally shaping American immigration policy.  While the Republican-led Congress has sworn to scuttle the policy by either passing new immigration reform or defunding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), twenty-six states, highlighted by Texas, filed a legal challenge to the President’s decision.

Judge Andrew Hanen found that the President’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and the expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) violated procedural requirements that guide how the executive branch enforces congressional law, but, did not agree that the President violated the constitution.   Judge Hanen determined that Congress, when granting authority to the DHS, and by extension the executive which the agency serves, did not allow for a widespread policy of non-enforcement.  Under the APA, the President does not have the right “abdicate” congressional authority by drastically diverting from the power the legislative body conferred upon agencies, and Judge Hanen found that Mr. Obama’s policy was too far beyond the scope of DHS’s reach. 

Although this is not a decision on the constitutional question, the end result is the same – Mr. Obama’s policy is not legal because he does not have the authority to issue immigration policy by non-enforcement of law.

Federal Judge Akins Obama Immigration Order to New Law

Central to Judge Hanen’s argument was his determination that Mr. Obama’s broad order to not enforce immigration law was, in effect, a law passed and enforced solely by the President.  Although the Obama Administration has maintained that it has discretionary authority over how to direct administrative agency enforcement procedure, Judge Hanen determined that such an overarching policy of non-enforcement went beyond allowable discretion and became a law that Congress did not have any involvement in passing.  As a President cannot pass new law unilaterally, the judge found that Mr. Obama had acted beyond his capacity.

Borrowing, albeit in better fashion, another line of logic from a December decision by a Pennsylvania federal judge who also rejected Mr. Obama’s actions, Judge Hanen also took issue with the fact that the President’s order removed any case-by-case discretion from DHS enforcement.  Such case-by-case analysis, the judge argued, is necessary to distinguish enforcement directives from laws, and Mr. Obama’s immigration policy mandates that DHS officials forgo any prosecution on undocumented aliens, barring the existence of other criminal offenses.

By finding the Obama Immigration Policy to be an over-broad expansion of enforcement authority that effectively initiated new immigration laws, Judge Hanen held that the administration’s plan was procedurally invalid.  His order will halt the planned roll out of DOPA and DOCA while the issue progresses.

Appeal from Obama Administration

Predictably, the Obama Administration has already announced its intention to appeal the decision, although DHS will honor the ruling while the issue is pending.  The case will likely progress to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and given the critical nature of the issue, it will not be surprising if it is expedited to the 5th Circuit, and possibly even the Supreme Court if Judge Hanen’s ruling is validated.  With SCOTUS already filling its docket with key cases on Obamacare and gay marriage, the immigration question could also be tabled should the case reach that stage.

One key point to Judge Hanen’s ruling was that he determined that the 26 states challenging Mr. Obama’s policy had legal standing to do so.  This could be a key question as the case moves on, and Judge Hanen’s decision to devote 60 of his 123 page opinion to standing reinforces how thoroughly the judge considered this question. Ultimately concluding that the states, particularly Texas and other border states, could suffer a cost if Mr. Obama’s amnesty-by-non-enforcement strategy was implemented, Judge Hanen provided sound legal reasoning on a critical procedural question.

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