Federalism and the Disappearing Equal Protection Rights of Immigrants

Posted: 1 Sep 2016  

Kevin R. Johnson

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: July 27, 2016

Abstract

Jenny-Brooke Condon’s article The Preempting of Equal Protection for Immigrants-analyzes important issues surrounding the constitutional rights of immigrants. Professor Condon in essence contends that the current legislative, executive, and scholarly focus on the distribution of immigration power between the state and federal governments has undermined the Equal Protection rights of legal immigrants in the United States. Despite the contentious national debates over immigration reform, immigrants’ rights have generally been of secondary concern in contemporary immigration scholarship, which is now dominated by analysis of immigration federalism.

Professor Condon undoubtedly is correct that we should not lose sight of the rights of immigrants through a myopic focus on federalism concerns. Courts should be vigilant to protect noncitizens from the excesses of all governmental exercises of power, including discrimination against immigrants by the federal government.

This essay identifies two areas for future inquiry that build on The Preempting of Equal Protection for Immigrants? First, Professor Condon questions the arbitrary line-drawing between the standards of review of state and federal alienage classifications. But, she herself draws a questionable line by advocating for greater protection of the constitutional rights of legal immigrants, while stopping short of calling for the extension of rights to undocumented immigrants. However, all immigrants are disenfranchised, lack direct political power, and frequently suffer the disfavor of the majority in the political process. That status militates in favor of strict scrutiny review of laws targeting undocumented as well as lawful immigrants.

Second, if Professor Condon’s call for greater attention to the Equal Protection rights of noncitizens is taken seriously, we must examine the continuing vitality of the plenary power doctrine. That exceptional doctrine shields from judicial review invidious classifications under the U.S. immigration laws, including discrimination that would be patently unconstitutional if applied to U.S. citizens; those laws historically have discriminated against noncitizens who are racial minorities, poor, disabled, women, political dissidents, and others. Dismantling what is known as “immigration exceptionalism” has long puzzled immigration law scholars. Professor Condon reminds us of the need to reconsider the constitutional immunity for immigrant admissions and removal criteria.

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Kevin R., Federalism and the Disappearing Equal Protection Rights of Immigrants (July 27, 2016). Washington and Lee Law Review, Online Edition, Vol. 73, 2016; UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 500. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2833015

Kevin R. Johnson (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
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Davis, CA 95616-5201
United States
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