Constitutional Conflicts, Immigration

What you need to know about the big immigration hearing

(This article was originally published at Latino Rebels.)

Yesterday, a federal judge in Brownsville, Texas, heard arguments from 25 states and the federal government on whether to block President Obama’s executive order on immigration. Here’s what you need to know about Texas v. United States, the name the case has been assigned:

1) This Is Only the Beginning of the Lawsuit

The case before U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, is still in its infancy stages. A trial, if one occurs at all, is still long ways away. But yesterday’s hearing was important because it could signal what could occur at trial. One of the questions Judge Hanen will be deciding is the states’ “likelihood of success on the merits”—that is, the likelihood that they actually have a winning case.

So far, that question is up in the air. Late last year, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. threw out a similar lawsuit by Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, noting in her decision that the sheriff likely could not win on his claim that the president acted unconstitutionally when he issued his new immigration directive. Part of yesterday’s hearing centered on this constitutional argument.

2) That said, the Judge Won’t Be Ruling on the Constitutionality of the Program

“This lawsuit is not about immigration. It is about the rule of law, presidential power, and the structural limits of the U.S. Constitution,” the states argued in court documents. That’s the bottom line of the states’ lawsuit: they seek the invalidation of the program on constitutional grounds. But the court won’t be deciding the constitutionality of the program. At least not yet.

Though that question certainly reared its head in yesterday’s hearing, Hanen will only be deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction, an extraordinary remedy that prevents the allegedly offending party from hurting the party that’s suing—here, the federal government and the several states, respectively. It’s similar to a restraining order, a temporary court order that forbids conduct while the court reaches a final decision on a matter.

But the Supreme Court has said that a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary measure—courts shouldn’t grant them lightly. Which is why yesterday’s hearing was a big deal. And the burden will be on Texas and the other states to make a clear showing that they’re entitled to an order that puts a stop to the program.

3) To Grant an Injunction, the Judge Will Rule on Whether the Executive Order Causes Harm.

A key dispute the judge will decide is whether President Obama’s immigration order somehow “injures” the suing states. But the federal government and the states are interested in this particular dispute for different reasons.

The Obama administration argues the executive order doesn’t harm the states at all and thus the lawsuit should be dismissed altogether—that the states lack “standing” to sue. The government contends that the new deferred-action policy doesn’t mandate the states to take any action; the states aren’t themselves targeted by it. And because the states are “neither prosecuted nor threatened with prosecution” as a result of the executive order, they’re essentially third parties without a stake in government’s policy choices regarding immigration. They have no business bringing this lawsuit.

The states, on the other hand, not only argue that the executive order does harm them, but that it also “irreparably” harms them—that it injures them so severely that the judge must order an injunction to stop the program from even taking effect. The states assert, among other things, that the immigration plan imposes huge administrative costs on them, that it will set off a new wave of illegal immigration leading to another “humanitarian crisis” in border states, and that beneficiaries will be eligible for state programs that they otherwise wouldn’t be eligible for.

4) Which Side Has the Better Case?

There is broad consensus that the president has the better argument. A number of legal scholars and immigration experts have come out in favor of the constitutionality of President Obama’s executive order, which finds its roots in existing immigration law and longstanding prosecutorial discretion—the president’s prerogative to enforce or not enforce the laws with respect to deportations. And because Congress is in charge of passing immigration laws—yesterday, the House of Representatives did just that—Judge Hanen may be disinclined to settle a dispute between co-elected branches.

The federal government also has some allies. A coalition of 12 states filed a legal document in support of the new policy, arguing that its effects are beneficial for local economies. And an alliance of police chiefs from major cities submitted court documents arguing that the president’s order helps to “to effectively police and protect the communities they serve.” The aim of both these groups is clearly to counter the states’ claims that the new immigration policy harms them.

Some opponents of the measure, such as libertarian think-tank Cato Institute, do not focus so much on the harm aspect—in fact, the group thinks it’s “good policy”—but merely argue that the president engaged in executive overreach. They contend, among other things, that Obama violated the Constitution by failing to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” and enacting a policy that simply advanced his agenda. Cato maintains that the new immigration order is in direct conflict with the will of Congress as expressed in immigration laws currently on the books.

This is a point to watch—Obama has said on numerous occasions that he can only act within the parameters of the law. A finding that the immigration order actually violates federal law would indeed undermine the whole program. But Judge Hanen won’t be deciding that any time soon—he’ll only decide the likelihood that that might be the case.

5) What’s Next?

A small waiting period. Because Texas and the other states are only seeking temporary relief, an order from the judge granting or denying the injunction shouldn’t take long—at the hearing, Judge Hanen said he won’t rule until after Jan. 30. (The judge who ruled on Joe Arpaio’s case only took one day to rule.)

If the federal government wins, the injunction would be denied and the case would be dismissed; the repercussions, other than an appeal, would be minor. A win for the states, however, could potentially deal a huge blow to the Obama administration and immigration advocacy groups, which have been engaging in significant prep work ahead of the new program’s rollout. It could cause major disruption unless a higher court intervenes. Win or lose, there would probably be an appeal. And given the significance of the executive order on immigration, the case might even reach the Supreme Court—before it even goes to trial.

Whatever the outcome, yesterday’s hearing is only the beginning of a case that could potentially drag on for years, politicizing the issue of immigration further as the litigation advancess. Since there’s agreement that millions would benefit from the new executive order, the quicker the court makes a decision and eliminates uncertainty, the better.

Immigration, Other Legal Battles

D.C. judge tosses Joe Arpaio’s immigration lawsuit

(A version of this article first appeared at Latino Rebels.)

Late Wednesday evening, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., dismissed a lawsuit filed by Ariz. sheriff Joe Arpaio challenging the legality of President Obama’s executive action on immigration.

In a 33-page ruling issued a day after the court heard arguments from the parties, U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell tossed the suit on “standing” grounds, noting that Arpaio only stated “generalized grievances” about the new immigration policy, but failed to point to a “concrete and particularized injury” requiring court intervention.

The judge anchored her ruling on “long-existing regulations” governing deferred action, which are rooted in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and have long served as the basis for granting work authorization to undocumented immigrants.

“For almost twenty years, the use of deferred action programs has been a staple of immigration enforcement,” Howell wrote, noting the various ways the federal government has provided such a relief over time.

Arpaio was seeking to put a stop to the program temporarily while the case was litigated in court, but the federal government responded to Arpaio with a request of its own seeking dismissal of the entire case.

Interestingly, much of the court’s reasoning derived from another Arizona case, Arizona v. United States, the landmark Supreme Court case striking down key provisions of SB1070, the state’s infamous show-me-your-papers law. That case made clear that “state law enforcement and other officials have no authority” over immigration matters, which are the exclusive province of the federal government.

The court also brushed aside Arpaio’s pleas that allowing the president’s plan to move forward would lead to threats to his life, that it somehow would make his work as sheriff harder and more costly, and that the new policy would turn Arizona into a “magnet” for new immigrants, particularly criminals.

According to POLITICO, Arpaio attorney Larry Klayman has already appealed the decision, which he called “weak.”

Reaction to Arpaio’s latest news spread quickly last night on social media, with several immigrant rights activists weighing in on the decision. One social-media banner branded Arpaio a “loser.”

In a footnote, Judge Schwab also took a moment to address a recent federal court ruling out of Pennsylvania invalidating the new immigration policy. She deemed that ruling unpersuasive, in part because of the strange manner the judge reached his decision.

Shwab’s opinion serves as an important blueprint for what a federal court in Texas might do with a similar lawsuit by Gov.-elect Greg Abbott challenging the president’s executive plan. Since that case was filed, a number of other states have joined the lawsuit, the most recent being Tennessee, according to Nashville Scene.

Immigration, Media

Jimmy is off on #ImmigrationAction

Jimmy Fallon and NBC’s Nightly News host Brian Williams are the unlikeliest of partners, and yet they continue to collaborate and delight on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

One of the duo’s most viewed clips on YouTube is a Williams rendition of “Rapper’s Delight,” a work of genius featuring hundreds of Williams fragments from various Nightly News broadcasts and other segments, all to the beat of an American classic. It was television at its finest.

But Fallon and Williams were off Tuesday in their latest offering of another popular feature, “Slow Jam the News,” a musical bit where the pair, backed by house band The Roots, reads the news of the moment to the beat of an introspective, R&B groove.

This time, the topic was President Obama’s executive action on immigration—indeed an important subject and one deserving of a further push into the mainstream. What could go wrong?

Alas, everything. Neither Fallon nor Williams appear to have done their homework on the matter, and instead let the segment air as is—filled with misinformation, legal errors, and even damning stereotypes more befitting a Rush Limbaugh rant than something a beloved funnyman and a respected anchorman might come up with. It was a hot mess.

Here’s the clip:

Williams’s opening flow was flat-out wrong from beginning to end:

“President Obama signed an executive order that granted temporary legal status to five million undocumented workers and provided a path to citizenship for those that meet certain criteria, thus giving new immigrants a new way to enter our country.”

For one, there’s the fiction that with the stroke of a pen Obama “granted” deferred action to undocumented immigrants, as if nothing were required on their end to accede to the program’s benefits—no application process, no background check, no payment of back taxes, no fee. It assumes a work permit will magically show up on the doorsteps of five million people.

There’s also the falsity that the president’s action only benefits workers, when the universe of beneficiaries is much larger—DREAMers, the parents of American citizens and permanent residents, and others such as victims of crime and those with pending cases.

The “legal status” bit is also wrong, because legal status would mean being on equal footing with green-card holders, which Obama’s executive plan certainly does not promise. Social Security benefits may accrue and become available after 10 years of paying into the system—hopefully comprehensive immigration reform will be a reality before then—but no significant federal benefits other than a work permit will flow to beneficiaries. No federal financial aid. No welfare. No food stamps. No healthcare or housing subsidies.

Perhaps the most egregious untruth of all is that Obama’s immigration plan offers “a path to citizenship.” That would be amnesty, something the president can’t and won’t do without Congress. Feeding the notion that the plan promises naturalization only lends credence to the cries of “lawlessness” and unconstitutionality that have plagued the new policy since even before it was formally announced.

Finally, there’s the assertion that the new executive plan gives immigrants “a new way to enter our country.” This goes to the heart of the same conservative fears—long proven unfounded—that the original Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy somehow caused the surge of unaccompanied children at the border. That was not the case, and harping on this misleading falsehood only compounds anti-immigrant sentiment.

As if all of the above weren’t already bad, The Roots’ Tariq Trotter, the soulful partner of Fallon and Williams, gets away with a stereotypical line that doesn’t even merit serious analysis: “They’re lining up to get inside the U.S.A. . . . just like it was at Kmart on Black Friday.”

As irony would have it, we learn at the end of the slow jam that the comedy bit coincided with Williams’ 10th anniversary as host of Nightly News. What a way to celebrate.

En Español

La “crisis constitucional” de Ted Cruz

(Una versión de esta columna fue publicada en la edición impresa y digital de La Opinión.)

El senador Ted Cruz es un hombre muy inteligente.

Educado en la facultad de derecho de Harvard, trabajó en la Corte Suprema de Estados Unidos como asistente de William Rehnquist, el otrora presidente del tribunal. Años más tarde, Cruz representaría al estado de Texas como su fiscal general frente al máximo tribunal.

El hombre sabe de leyes.

Resulta curioso que Cruz —al día siguiente de las elecciones que le dieron la victoria a los Republicanos en el Congreso— decidiera enviarle una carta a Harry Reid, el líder demócrata del Senado. La misiva no tenía nada que ver con la victoria.

En dos párrafos, Cruz le expresó a Reid su consternación por la intención del presidente Barack Obama de actuar de forma unilateral para “otorgarle amnistía” a inmigrantes indocumentados.

Lo de “amnistía” no es nada nuevo para Cruz, pero esto otro sí lo es: dijo que el actuar de Obama “creará una crisis constitucional”, de modo que el Congreso se verá obligado a “restaurar la separación de poderes”. Instó a Reid a “proteger la Constitución” y a hacer todo lo posible para “balancear” el poder del presidente.

Pero lo que escribió Cruz es una contradicción. Y es inverosímil desde un punto de vista constitucional.

Cruz se contradice porque al inmiscuirse en lo que puede o no puede hacer Obama, él mismo se está entrometiendo en las labores de otro poder del Estado. La tarea de Cruz es aprobar o revocar leyes; la de Obama es hacerlas cumplir.

Pero Obama también puede no hacerlas cumplir. La decisión de no deportar a alguien es lo que se conoce como “discreción procesal”, una facultad del Ejecutivo que se extiende a toda ley habida y por haber: ambientales, penales, tributarias, administrativas, etc.

Allí también, Cruz no puede decirle a Obama qué hacer y qué no hacer. No es de su competencia.

Además está el hecho de que nadie sabe lo que se propone Obama. Sólo se sabe que actuará antes de fin de año y que actuará dentro de los límites de la ley. Entre sus planes se rumorea que expanda el programa de acción diferida para que beneficie a más indocumentados.

¿Pero es el programa de acción diferida ilegal? Si DACA desde un comienzo fue un problema constitucional, ¿por qué nunca se tomaron medidas legales para detenerlo?

Kris Kobach, el secretario de estado de Kansas —además de artífice de la ley SB1070 en Arizona— hizo lo que Cruz o Boehner nunca hicieron y demandó al gobierno federal por establecer el programa de acción diferida.

En julio del año pasado, la demanda fue desechada por un juez federal.

Y es muy probable que cualquier demanda que Boehner o Cruz presenten —si es que se atreven—, también sea desechada. No por falta de argumentos, sino porque el Poder Judicial sí sabe de separación de poderes. Al no ser elegidos por voto popular, sus jueces prefieren no meterse en contiendas políticas ajenas. Y mucho menos si no hay crisis constitucional alguna.

Esto es algo que Cruz, más que nadie, sabe muy bien.

Constitutional Conflicts, Immigration

The edifice of government won’t collapse

The day after the midterm elections, Sen. Ted Cruz sent a letter to Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader.

Oddly, the subject matter wasn’t the resounding Republican victory, but an impending “constitutional crisis”: President Obama’s plan to use executive action on immigration. Cruz urged Reid to use the lame-duck session to “restore the separation of powers.”

Lofty language, but America is not on the brink of a constitutional crisis.

Perhaps the closest the country ever came to one was in 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt, unhappy with the Supreme Court’s animosity towards New Deal policies, pushed for legislation aimed at filling the court with justices friendly to his economic ideals.

Had Roosevelt’s “court-packing” plan worked, it would’ve been a true constitutional crisis: A president wielding his power to convince Congress to change the makeup of an independent judiciary, for the sole purpose of rubberstamping legislation he liked.

In other words, getting all ducks in a row. Separation of powers would have been a joke.

But the crisis never materialized. The Supreme Court itself managed to avert it with its decision in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, which effectively upheld something Roosevelt had long sought: legislation advancing his vision of economic progress. In this case, it was Washington state’s minimum-wage law. The bill to pack the court died a natural death shortly after.

None of this should be news to Cruz—a Harvard Law graduate and himself former law clerk to a Supreme Court chief justice. Which makes it all the more curious that he’d call Obama’s imminent action on immigration a “constitutional crisis.”

It is nowhere near that.

For one, because executive action on immigration has nothing to do with the separation of powers. Obama is not making new law: he’s not promising green cards or otherwise offering federal benefits to undocumented immigrants. He’s merely expected to exercise his broad discretion to suspend deportations for the sake of keeping families together and giving peace of mind to people who pose no threat to public safety.

All of this is perfectly within the president’s powers. Family unity, it turns out, has been a cornerstone of executive action before, and no constitutional crises ever came of it.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which provided a path to legalization for up to 3 million undocumented immigrants who had resided “continuously” in the country for a fixed period. The law, however, left out of the picture spouses and children who did not meet the law’s criteria.

There was huge political fallout from the exclusion—it threatened to disrupt families, which cut to the heart of Reagan’s stance on family values and unity. Congress tried to fix the problem, to no avail.

So the executive responded. Alan Nelson, Reagan’s immigration commissioner at the time, announced he would exercise the attorney general’s discretion to make sure children of parents who benefitted from IRCA were granted a deferral of deportation—the functional equivalent of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program from June 2012.

But the executive fix didn’t go far enough because it still left spouses and some children with one legalized and one undocumented parent unprotected from deportation. In July 1989, the Senate attempted to help these two groups by expanding IRCA to include them, but the House did not act.

Enter George H.W. Bush.

In what became known as the “Family Fairness” program, Bush boldly took up the failed Senate bill and implemented its main provisions via executive action. Gene McNary, the new immigration commissioner, predicted that up to 1.5 million family members would be spared from deportation under the new policy.

None of this, of course, caused a constitutional crisis.

If anything, executive action prompted Congress to step up to the plate and pass legislation that would provide even more help for families. It took Bush Sr. “going big” on immigration for the House to follow suit, leading to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1990. When Bush signed the law, he recognized its impetus was “family as the essential unity of society” and the country’s “historic commitment to family reunification.”

Families won the day. And like Reagan and Bush before him, there is a strong incentive for Obama to act on behalf of families when he moves unilaterally on immigration.

If the edifice of government didn’t collapse with prior executive action, it won’t collapse now.

En Español

Obama, el ilegal

Sin haber hecho mucho durante el año, el Congreso de Estados Unidos se fue de vacaciones.

Mientras las disfruta, el presidente Barack Obama ha anunciado que actuará de forma unilateral para descomprimir la crisis migratoria.

La oposición ya ha tildado sus intenciones de “ilícitas”. La palabra en inglés es lawless, algo así como “sin ley”. O quizás por sobre la ley. O ilegal.

Da lo mismo. La realidad es que nadie sabe lo que se propone el presidente. Sólo se sabe que actuará antes de que se acabe el receso legislativo.

Hay quienes vaticinan que el presidente expandirá el programa de acción diferida, bajo el cual miles de estudiantes indocumentados han podido obtener permisos de trabajo. Lo que no se sabe es cuán grande será la expansión, o si incluirá a familiares de los DREAMers.

Otros predicen que Obama pedirá que se cambie el reglamento que define a los indocumentados de “baja prioridad”, es decir, aquellos que no presentan un riesgo para la seguridad pública. De ser así, es posible que personas que hayan cometido faltas menores —a diferencia de delitos graves—, no se les considere “deportables” y se les permita quedarse.

Pero sea cual sea el curso que elija Obama, sus opositores en la Cámara y el Senado ya tienen prejuzgado su actuar. “Obama está actuando ilegalmente”. Otros son más alarmistas: “Obama está violando la Constitución”. ¿Pero es realmente así?

Si uno analiza la historia y el historial de Obama, se dará cuenta que las cosas no son tan graves como los Republicanos las hacen parecer, y que el presidente no necesita el permiso del Congreso para dictar políticas que están dentro de sus facultades.

La Constitución le da al presidente, como ejecutor de las leyes, la última palabra sobre cómo se ha de cumplir la ley. Si le da la gana, puede no hacerla cumplir. Eso es lo que se conoce como “discreción procesal”.

La policía hace lo mismo a cada rato. La ley manda que no se puede cruzar la calle a mitad de cuadra, pero uno no ve a la policía arrestando a los miles que lo hacen a diario en Nueva York. O multando a peatones que cruzan con la luz roja. O deteniendo a todos los carros que se pasan de la velocidad máxima.

De la misma forma, hay miles de leyes que siguen vigentes pero que simplemente no se hacen cumplir, ya sea por ser muy antiguas o porque simplemente no existen los recursos para hacerlo. El Ejecutivo tiene discrecionalidad absoluta para decidir cómo se cumplen las leyes.

Lo que Obama no puede hacer es ir más allá de lo que la ley permite, como otorgar residencia permanente a indocumentados u otros beneficios federales como Social Security o seguro médico. Eso sería usurpar el poder legislativo.

Pero decidir no hacer algo —como desistir en deportar a ciertos grupos o crear excepciones para casos especiales— es perfectamente constitucional. Todos los jefes de estado lo han hecho, tanto en temas migratorios como penales, tributarios y administrativos. No es nada nuevo.

El Congreso puede seguir disfrutando sus vacaciones.

(Una versión de esta columna fue publicada en la edición impresa y online de La Opinión.)

En Español

Defensor de derechos, no de asesinos

Pocos conocen al neoyorquino Debo P. Adegbile. Después de lo que le ocurrió en el Senado estadounidense, lo más probable es que pocos lo lleguen a conocer.

Adegbile, abogado de profesión, fue nominado por el presidente Barack Obama para dirigir la División de Derechos Civiles del Departamento de Justicia. El Senado rechazó su nominación.

El pecado capital de Adegbile, según la cámara alta del Congreso: defender a un asesino.

Cuando Adegbile trabajaba para la NAACP, la reconocida organización de derechos civiles, representó a Mumia Abu-Jamal, un hombre condenado a la pena de muerte por asesinar a un policía en Filadelfia. En política y en la vida, no caen muy bien los que matan a policías.

Por lo visto, tampoco cae bien ser el abogado de uno.

La defensa de Adegbile, eso sí, no se centró en insistir que Abu-Jamal era inocente; el jurado ya lo había condenado. Adegbile lo representó después de su sentencia, argumentando que el juez que lo condenó cometió un error procesal que violó los derechos constitucionales de su cliente.

¿Por qué se involucró la NAACP? Porque la pena de muerte, históricamente, se ha aplicado de forma racista y desproporcionada a más negros que blancos. La NAACP decidió apelar la sentencia sólo para dejar constancia de que, según la Constitución, motivos raciales no pueden formar parte del proceso condenatorio. Nunca. (Dos cortes de apelaciones, en 2008 y 2011, le dieron la razón a la NAACP.)

Aun así, el Senado se dejó llevar por el coro de parlamentarios que tildaron a Adegbile de “defensor de asesinos” —o peor, un cop killer—, y rechazaron su designación a un órgano federal cuya principal labor es la defensa de los derechos civiles, precisamente por defender los derechos civiles de alguien.

Lo que hizo el Senado no es solamente insólito, sino que sienta un terrible precedente, por varios motivos.

Primero, porque todos tenemos derechos constitucionales, entre los cuales se encuentra el derecho a ser representado por un abogado en causas penales. Al rechazar a Adegbile por representar a un hombre poco popular —que igual tiene derechos—, el Senado le dio una bofetada a todos aquellos abogados que representan a personas mal vistas por la sociedad. Pero lo bello de la Constitución es que no hace acepción de personas. Todos merecen una representación ferviente y eficaz, independiente del delito. Todos merecen el resguardo de sus derechos ante el inmenso poder del Estado.

Segundo, lo que hizo el Senado fue denigrar la vocación al servicio público. Ser un abogado de derechos civiles o defensor público no es tan lucrativo como ser un abogado corporativo. Se gana mucho menos defendiendo a un latino acusado de robarse una bicicleta que a un ejecutivo de Wall Street acusado de robarse millones. El mismo presidente de la Corte Suprema, John Roberts, una vez defendió a un asesino en serie. La gran diferencia entre Roberts y Adegbile es que el primero trabajó para una gran firma de abogados —de esas que defiende a ejecutivos—, mientras que Adegbile trabajó para la NAACP. Pero de estos dos sólo Roberts fue confirmado a su cargo por el Senado. ¿Doble estándar?

Por último, el rechazo que sufrió Adegbile demuestra la desmedida influencia que tienen los medios conservadores para sembrar el terror. Porque no importa la larga lista de logros que tenga Adegbile; el puro hecho de haber defendido los derechos de un cliente impopular, causó una ola de críticas de parte de Fox News y sus aliados políticos. Todas han sido desacreditadas por no apegarse a los hechos. Si el Senado continúa cediendo a presiones sin fundamento, muy pronto perderá toda relevancia como institución democrática. (Hay quienes piensan que ya lo ha hecho.)

Se requiere una entrega especial para ser abogado de los menos afortunados, sean éstos minorías, discapacitados, inmigrantes, gays o trabajadores. Cuando un poder del Estado pone en tela de juicio la nobleza de esta labor, serán menos los que algún día se decidan por ella.

Y para qué hablar de aspirar a un nombramiento presidencial. Las chances son casi nulas.

(Una versión de esta columna fue publicada en la edición impresa y online de El Diario.)