A few hours before announcing his new immigration policy, President Obama received an opinion blessing its legality from the Office of Legal Counsel. Regrettably, the OLC’s made-to-order legal analysis is shockingly flawed in five major respects.
First, the OLC justified the policy as a prioritization of government’s “limited resources.” But the executive order does more than prioritize. It rewrites existing law. Illegal immigrants won’t be deported if they aren’t a threat to national security, public safety or border security. Beyond these three categories, deportation may be pursued only if it serves an “important federal interest.”
Under current law, by contrast, anyone entering the U.S. illegally is a “deportable alien” who “shall, upon the order of the Attorney General, be removed.” The president’s policy transforms an entire category of aliens deemed deportable into two different categories, whereby some are deportable and some aren’t. This is a shift in kind, not merely degree.
A president prioritizing resources would do what previous presidents have done: enforce the entirety of immigration law, while allowing prosecutors to make case-by-case determinations. By announcing a global policy of nonenforcement against certain categories, Mr. Obama condones unlawful behavior, weakening the law’s deterrent impact, and allows lawbreakers to remain without fear of deportation. As he puts it, “All we’re saying is we are not going to deport you.” These individuals are no longer deportable, although Congress has declared them so.
Second, the OLC incorrectly concludes that the president’s plan involves case-by-case scrutiny. The OLC admits “a general policy of nonenforcement that forecloses the exercise of case-by-case discretion poses ‘special risks’ that the agency has exceeded the bounds of its enforcement discretion.” It argues, however, that there are no “removable aliens whose removal may not be pursued under any circumstances.” And although the policy “limits the discretion of immigration officials . . . it does not eliminate that discretion entirely.”
It is absurd to assert that the theoretical possibility that a small percentage of the more than four million likely applicants may be rejected is meaningful “prosecutorial discretion.” This is illustrated by Mr. Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Of 521,815 applications considered on a “case-by-case” basis, only 3% have been rejected. With an approval rate of 97%, the president’s criteria are rubber-stamped. This is a categorical exemption from the law.
Third, even if Mr. Obama’s plan is accepted as case-by-case discretion, it creates a remedy—deferred deportation—for a category that Congress hasn’t allowed and the president lacks authority to create. The OLC memo lumps deferred deportation with other kinds of deportation relief, such as parole, temporary protected status and deferred enforced departure. But each of these has been specifically authorized by Congress, or—in the case of deferred enforced departure—is supported by the president’s foreign-affairs power.
While Congress has authorized deferred deportation for specific categories, lawmakers haven’t authorized it for those to whom President Obama wishes to extend it—the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. The OLC claims that this isn’t important because deferred deportation “has become a regular feature of the immigration removal system that has been acknowledged by both Congress and the Supreme Court.” It cites the 1999 Reno v. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee case.
In that case, members of the Palestinian Liberation Front claimed the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s refusal to defer their deportation constituted discrimination. The court disagreed, ruling that a recently passed statute was “clearly designed to give some measure of protection to ‘no deferred action’ decisions” and deny adjudication of such discrimination claims. The ruling merely acknowledged that Congress didn’t want federal courts hearing discrimination lawsuits based on a failure to grant deferred action. It didn’t consider or endorse the legality of deferred deportation.
The OLC next claims that Congress has “acquiesced” to deferred deportation. It cites statutes authorizing deferred deportation for battered spouses of U.S. citizens, and instances where individuals entitled to visas—such as victims of human trafficking or college students affected by Hurricane Katrina—needed more time to obtain visas or fulfill the visa’s purpose. Congress’s authorization of deferred deportation for narrow categories doesn’t allow a president to create broad new categories, particularly since his deferred deportation creates entitlement to benefits such as work permits, and because the category of aliens created by President Obama’s policy weren’t entitled to stay.
Fourth, the OLC claims that past presidents have taken similar actions, yet it fundamentally misrepresents their legal basis. The primary example is George H.W. Bush ’s 1990 Family Fairness Policy (FFP), which affected an estimated 1.5 million children and spouses of those granted amnesty by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
The FFP, however, was consonant with existing statutes. The FFP granted not deferred deportation, but “voluntary departure” for up to one year. Voluntary departure allows deportable individuals to voluntarily depart the country, on their own dime, in lieu of being forcibly removed. Their status as “deportable” individuals never changes.
The FFP was grounded in the then-existing voluntary-departure statute, which stated, “The Attorney General may, in his discretion, permit any alien under deportation proceedings . . . to depart voluntarily from the United States at his own expense in lieu of deportation.” The FFP didn’t contradict existing law or attempt to recategorize deportable aliens.
Fifth, the OLC ignores that the new Obama policy profoundly harms the states, which bear the costs of educating and providing health care to millions of illegal immigrants now allowed to remain. The policy also injures state sovereignty.
In Arizona v. U.S., the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that federal immigration law pre-empts much of state power over immigration. But when a president unilaterally acts, it deprives states of their police power and representation in Congress, imposing changes without democratic deliberation. While federal immigration law can pre-empt state power, there can be no pre-emption when a president exceeds his constitutional authority by rewriting the law.
The OLC’s memo endorses a view of presidential power that has never been advanced by even the boldest presidential advocates. If this view holds, future presidents can unilaterally gut tax, environmental, labor or securities laws by enforcing only those portions with which they agree. This is a dangerous precedent that cannot be allowed to stand.
Mr. Rivkin is a constitutional litigator and served in the Justice Department and White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Ms. Foley is a constitutional law professor at the Florida International University College of Law.