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Monday, February 4, 2013

Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Enforcement: Legal Issues



Kate M. Manuel
Legislative Attorney

Todd Garvey
Legislative Attorney


The term prosecutorial discretion is commonly used to describe the wide latitude that prosecutors have in determining when, whom, how, and even whether to prosecute apparent violations of the law. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and, later, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its components have historically described themselves as exercising prosecutorial discretion in immigration enforcement. Some commentators have recently challenged this characterization on the grounds that DHS enforces primarily civil violations, and some of its components cannot be said to engage in “law enforcement,” as that term is conventionally understood. However, even agencies that do not prosecute or engage in law enforcement have been recognized as having discretion (sometimes referred to as enforcement discretion) in determining whether to enforce particular violations.

Federal regulation of immigration is commonly said to arise from various powers enumerated in the Constitution (e.g., naturalization, commerce), as well as the federal government’s inherent power to control and conduct foreign relations. Some, although not all, of these powers belong exclusively to Congress, and courts have sometimes described Congress as having “plenary power” over immigration. However, few courts or commentators have addressed the separation of powers between Congress and the President in the field of immigration, and the executive has sometimes been said to share plenary power over immigration with Congress as one of the “political branches.” Moreover, the authority to exercise prosecutorial or enforcement discretion has traditionally been understood to arise from the Constitution, not from any congressional delegation of power.

Certain decisions have been widely recognized as within the prosecutorial discretion of immigration officers. These include deciding whether to initiate removal proceedings and what charges to lodge against the respondent; canceling a Notice to Appear or other charging document before jurisdiction vests with an immigration judge; granting deferred action or extended voluntary departure to an alien otherwise subject to removal (deportation); appealing particular decisions or orders; and imposing fines for particular offenses, among other things. Enforcement priorities and resources, as well as humanitarian concerns, have typically played a role in determining whether to exercise discretion in individual cases. For example, the George W. Bush Administration temporarily suspended employer sanctions in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, and the Obama Administration recently began granting deferred action to certain unauthorized aliens brought to the United States as children.

While the executive branch’s prosecutorial or enforcement discretion is broad, it is not unfettered, and particular exercises of discretion could potentially be checked by the Constitution, statute, or agency directives. Selective prosecution, or prosecution based on race, religion, or the exercise of constitutional rights, is prohibited, although aliens generally cannot assert selective prosecution as a defense to removal. A policy of non-enforcement that amounts to an abdication of an agency’s statutory responsibilities could potentially be said to violate the Take Care Clause. However, standing to challenge alleged violations of the Take Care Clause may be limited, and no court appears to have invalidated a policy of non-enforcement founded upon prosecutorial discretion on the grounds that the policy violated the Take Care Clause. Non-enforcement of particular laws could also potentially be challenged under the Administrative Procedure Act if a statute provides specific guidelines for the agency to follow in exercising its enforcement powers. In addition, an agency could potentially be found to have constrained its own discretion, as some courts found that the INS had done in the 1970s with its operating instruction on deferred action.



Date of Report: January 17, 2013
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: R42924
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