President Obama’s Immigration Enforcement Decision: Good Policy but Illegal?

Several commentators have weighed in on President Obama’s decision to stop deporting certain immigrants under 30 who were brought illegally to the country when they were under 16. This morning, Andrew Napolitano and Ilya Somin have come down firmly on opposite sides of this issue.


Along comes the president, and he has decided that he can fix some of our immigration woes by rewriting the laws to his liking. Never mind that the Constitution provides that his job is “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and that “all legislative power” in the federal government has been granted to Congress. He has chosen to bypass Congress and disregard the Constitution. Can he do this?

There is a valid and constitutional argument to be made that the president may refrain from defending and enforcing laws that he believes are palpably and demonstrably unconstitutional. These arguments go back to Thomas Jefferson, who refused to defend or enforce the Alien and Sedition Acts because, by punishing speech, they directly contradicted the First Amendment. Jefferson argued that when a law contradicts the Constitution, the law must give way because the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and all other laws are inferior and must conform to it. This argument is itself now universally accepted jurisprudence — except by President Obama, who recently and inexplicably questioned the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to invalidate the Affordable Health Care Act on the basis that it is unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, there is no intellectually honest argument to be made that the president can pick and choose which laws to enforce based on his personal preferences. And it is a profound violation of the Constitution for the president to engage in rewriting the laws. That’s what he has done here. He has rewritten federal law. (emphasis original)


Some critics, such as John Yoo and Arnold Kling, attack the president’s decision not on the merits, but on the grounds that he lacks legal authority to choose not to enforce the law in this case.

This criticism runs afoul of the reality that the federal government already chooses not to enforce its laws against the vast majority of those who violate them. Current federal criminal law is so expansive that the majority of Americans are probably federal criminals. That includes whole categories of people who get away with violating federal law because the president and the Justice Department believe that going after them isn’t worth the effort, and possibly morally dubious. For example, the feds almost never go after the hundreds of thousands of college students who are guilty of using illegal drugs in their dorms. The last three presidents of the United States – all have reason to be grateful for this restraint.

Yoo contends that there is a difference between using “prosecutorial discretion” to “choose priorities and prosecute cases that are the most important” and “refusing to enforce laws because of disagreements over policy.” I don’t think the distinction holds water. Policy considerations are inevitably among the criteria by which presidents and prosecutors “choose priorities” and decide which cases are “the most important.” One reason why the federal government has not launched a crackdown on illegal drug use in college dorms is precisely because they think it would be bad policy, and probably unjust to boot. That, of course, is very similar to Obama’s decision here.

Finally,Yoo also argues that prosecutorial discretion does not allow the president to refuse to enforce an “entire law,” as opposed to merely doing so in specific cases. But Obama has not in fact refused to enforce the entire relevant law requiring deportation of illegal immigrants. He has simply chosen to do so with respect to people who fit certain specified criteria, that the vast majority of illegal immigrants do not meet. Even if the president did choose to forego enforcement of an entire law, it’s not clear to me that that is outside the scope of prosecutorial discretion. A president who uses his discretion to “choose priorities” could reasonably conclude that enforcement of federal laws A, B, and C is so much more valuable than enforcement of D that no resources should be devoted to the latter if they could possibly be used for the former.

This is a tough one. If you adopt the constitutional text as your guide, Obama’s actions seem clearly illegal. On the other hand, the constitutional text, interpreted literally, may demand something that is impossible: perfect enforcement. What say you, Pileus readers?

2 thoughts on “President Obama’s Immigration Enforcement Decision: Good Policy but Illegal?

  1. There is a basic problem with Somin’s argument. The President must make prudential decisions about enforcement, as the Federal government does not have (should not have?) the resources and power to enforce all of its laws, at all times, to all people. I would argue that these prudential decisions are actually a large part of a president’s domestic executive power.

    With that said, the President has now stepped beyond a prudential decision and stated (on several occasions) that his personal decisions about what is right and wrong now control enforcement. This is especially egregious given the ongoing debate in Congress about immigration and many legislative proposals in the works.

    It is actually rather exciting for conservatives of many stripes, I suppose. I mean, a conservative President could decide that:

    1. Environmental policy is damaging to growth, nowhere to be found in the Constitution, and therefore, will not be enforced against corporations.

    2. Federal educational policy is a tool of liberals, exceeds the power of the federal government under the Constitution, and therefore, the Department of Education is disbanded.

    3. Funding NPR is too communist and is a tool used by Democrats to criticize Republican administrations. Therefore, the President will use funds appropriated for NPR to fund a new conservative radio station, and defund NPR entirely.

    And so, while some may cheer these various moves by the President, and yell “tu quoque” to those who criticize them, I fear this is action simply moving us further along to a useless Congress and an imperial monarchy of a presidency. Reasoning that these moves are good because we like the outcome is dangerous, emotive, reasoning, and will result in more damage in the future.

  2. The objection that a standard is not possible to meet perfectly does not by itself defeat it. Many standards are not possible to meet perfectly. Kant’s categorical imperative and “WWJD?” for example. The goal is rather to approximate them as closely as possible.

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