Administrative Subordination

68 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2023 Last revised: 12 Jun 2024

See all articles by Bijal Shah

Bijal Shah

Boston College Law School

Date Written: March 17, 2023


Much of the work on immigration enforcement and environmental justice assumes that agencies negatively impact vulnerable marginalized people as a result of individualized bias or arbitrariness in administration. This Article argues that, beyond idiosyncrasies or flaws in administrators themselves, the poor impact of administration on minorities emanates from institutional systems. In other words, agencies subordinate minority interests to the ends of administrative competence and self-preservation.

A healthy federal bureaucracy is maintained by administrative efforts to reduce institutional burdens, improve efficiency, conserve resources, and preserve the structures underlying the agency’s power to regulate. In addition, a conventional justification for the existence of agencies is that they act on behalf of the public interest, and public interest theories of regulation prize criteria such as efficiency. Administrative actors, therefore, are motivated to pursue these values in order to preserve the administrative state.

However, as this Article shows, agencies harm marginalized communities in order to pursue these institutional virtues. It argues that administrative behavior subordinates minorities to bureaucratic self-preservation in contexts plagued by injustice (including national security, immigration, environmental crisis, energy justice and land use law) and, accordingly, in agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its immigration subcomponents; the Department of Justice (DOJ) and its immigration subcomponents; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), among others.

For example, immigration officials at DHS use arrest records to decide who to deport, even if the targeted noncitizens were never convicted of a crime, because arrest records are inexpensive and accessible proxies for immigration data. FEMA failed to evacuate tens of thousands of poor people of color in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as a result of the systematic management of an institutional history of limited resources. BLM approves gas and oil leases in rural towns quickly, even though the resulting rapid labor expansion reduces the safety of Native women, because focusing on rural communities for energy project expansion allows the agency to streamline its environmental review process.

Essentially, agencies that are operating as expected perpetuate systematic bias. Ironically, by prioritizing public interest values (such as efficiency), agencies may, in fact, cause harm. Ultimately, this renders agencies less efficient, to the extent efficiency requires not only speed and cost-savings, but also fair process and just outcomes. This Article’s prescription is for institutional redesign - from the top-down, filtered through legislation; from the bottom up, instigated by the President or agencies themselves; and with a focus on reviving a government of small, discrete agencies - in order to constrain administrative discretion in ways that encourage agencies to rebalance their priorities in the implementation of law.

Suggested Citation

Shah, Bijal, Administrative Subordination (March 17, 2023). University of Chicago Law Review, Forthcoming, Boston College Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 609, Available at SSRN: or

Bijal Shah (Contact Author)

Boston College Law School ( email )

885 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02459-1163
United States

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