The President and Immigration Law Redux

122 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2015 Last revised: 27 Oct 2015

See all articles by Adam B. Cox

Adam B. Cox

New York University School of Law

Cristina Rodriguez

Yale Law School

Date Written: August 6, 2015


In November 2014, President Obama announced his intention to dramatically reshape immigration law through administrative channels. Together with relief policies announced in 2012, his initiatives would shield nearly half the population of unauthorized immigrants from removal and enable them to work in the United States. These events have drawn renewed attention to the President’s power to shape immigration law. They also have reignited a longstanding controversy about whether constitutional limits exist on a central source of executive authority: the power to enforce the law.

In using the Obama relief policies to explore these dynamics, we make two central claims. First, it is futile to try to constrain the enforcement power by tying it to a search for congressional enforcement priorities. Congress has no discernible priorities when it comes to a very wide swath of enforcement activity — a reality especially true for immigration law today. The immigration code has evolved over time into a highly reticulated statute through the work of numerous Congresses and political coalitions. The modern structure of immigration law also effectively delegates vast screening authority to the President. Interlocking historical, political, and legislative developments have opened a tremendous gap between the law on the books and the law on the ground. Under these conditions, there can be no meaningful search for congressionally preferred screening criteria. Far from reflecting a faithful-agent framework, then, immigration enforcement more closely resembles a two-principals model of policymaking — one in which the Executive can and should help construct the domain of regulation through its independent judgments about how and when to enforce the law.

Second, when exploring limits on the enforcement power, we should focus not on who benefits from enforcement discretion but on how the Executive institutionalizes its discretion. The Obama relief initiatives are innovative: they bind the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to a more rule-like decision-making process, constrain the judgments of line-level officials by subjecting them to centralized supervision, and render the exercise of enforcement discretion far more transparent to the public than is customary. These efforts to better organize the enforcement bureaucracy ultimately advance core rule-of-law values without undermining deterrence or legal compliance, as some critics have worried. Moreover, while our focus on discretion’s institutionalization requires contextualized judgments that may rarely translate into clear doctrinal rules to govern the enforcement power, we believe it is generally unnecessary and unwise to use constitutional law to limit the President’s authority over how to organize the enforcement bureaucracy.

Keywords: immigration, Presidential power, separation of powers, executive authority, prosecutorial discretion

Suggested Citation

Cox, Adam B. and Rodriguez, Cristina, The President and Immigration Law Redux (August 6, 2015). 125 Yale Law Journal, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Adam B. Cox (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

Cristina Rodriguez

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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