The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Law

58 Pages Posted: 1 Oct 2009 Last revised: 14 Aug 2010

See all articles by Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law

Date Written: September 21, 2009


The concept of "prosecutorial discretion" appears in the immigration statute, agency memoranda and court decisions about select immigration enforcement decisions. Prosecutorial discretion extends to decisions about which offenses or populations to target; whom to stop, interrogate, and arrest; whether to detain or release a noncitizen; whether to initiate removal proceedings; and whether to execute a removal order; among other decisions. Similar to the criminal context, prosecutorial discretion in the immigration context is an important tool for achieving cost-effective law enforcement and relief for individuals who present desirable qualities or humanitarian circumstances. Yet there is a dearth of literature on the role of prosecutorial discretion in immigration law.

This article describes the theory, history, and current standard of prosecutorial discretion in immigration matters. Drawing on important and relevant lessons from the criminal and administrative law paradigms, this article shows why the existing model of prosecutorial discretion in immigration affairs is inadequate and in some instances misguided. Recognizing the striking impact of arbitrary immigration enforcement decisions on undocumented noncitizens and their families, this article advocates for a bolder standard on prosecutorial discretion and greater mechanisms for oversight and accountability when such standards are ignored. Moreover, this article recommends that the Department of Homeland Security recognize select acts of prosecutorial discretion as a substantive rule, where the actions operate as a de facto benefit to individuals who satisfy an identifiable set of criteria and favorable equities. This article is divided into five sections: 1) Legal Background and History, 2) Lessons from Criminal Law, 3) Lessons from Administrative Law, 4) Limitations of Prosecutorial Discretion, and 5) Recommendations. Some overlap was unavoidable.

Suggested Citation

Wadhia, Shoba Sivaprasad, The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Law (September 21, 2009). Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal, Vol. 9 , No. 2, p. 243, 2010, Penn State Legal Studies Research Paper No. 25-2010, Available at SSRN:

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia (Contact Author)

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law ( email )

Lewis Katz Building
University Park, PA 16802
United States

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