On Tuesday, in United States v. Juarez-Escobar, a federal district court in Pennsylvania held that President Obama’s Nov. 20 executive action on immigration, which affects millions of illegal aliens currently in the United States, violates the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers.
This is the first time a court has ruled on the constitutional status of the president’s executive action. It demonstrates that at least some federal courts will not shy away from considering constitutional issues raised by the president’s immigration policies.
The Case of Elionardo Juarez-Escobar
The defendant in this case is Elionardo Juarez-Escobar, a 42-year-old Honduran who entered the United States illegally from Mexico. Juarez-Escobar entered the United States illegally before 2005, was formally removed from the United States in 2005, but re-entered the United States on some unknown date thereafter. He had worked several years for his brother, a U.S. citizen who owns a landscaping business in Pittsburgh.
In April, Juarez-Escobar, accompanied by a minor, drove around a traffic stop with a blood alcohol level of 0.18 percent and open beer cans in the vehicle. He was subsequently charged with drunk driving and corrupting a minor, and his immigration status was referred to the Department of Homeland Security in June. He was jailed in July.
In an October hearing before a U.S. magistrate judge, Juarez-Escobar pled guilty to having illegally re-entered the United States. On Nov. 24, prior to sentencing, the supervising federal judge requested counsel for the government and the defendant to address the question of whether the president’s executive action applied to this defendant and whether any additional statutory or constitutional considerations needed to be addressed.
Obama’s Executive Action and Juarez-Escobar
The government contended the executive action applied only to civil immigration enforcement and thus did not cover this criminal prosecution. Counsel for Juarez-Escobar argued, among other things, that certain Honduran citizens in the U.S. were entitled to have their deportation deferred because of turmoil in their country.
According to the judge, the executive action in effect is legislation and therefore violates the constitutional separation of powers.
District Court Judge Arthur J. Schwab first addressed constitutional issues. He found that the executive action, which was implemented through the secretary of homeland security, announced two different enforcement policies: (1) expansion of deferred action to certain categories of illegal immigrants; and (2) updating of removal and deportation priorities for certain categories of illegal aliens.
Court Finds the Executive Action Effectively Legislation
The court determined that the executive action goes beyond the allowable exercise of prosecutorial discretion in two respects. First, it provides for a systematic and rigid process by which certain individuals will be treated differently than others based on arbitrary classifications (not case-by-case determinations). Second, it confers substantive rights on illegal immigrants who fall within broad categories created by the executive action.
For these reasons, according to the judge, the executive action in effect is legislation and therefore violates the constitutional separation of powers (Congress, not the president, legislates) and the president’s constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.
The court also ruled, however, that if the executive action is instead lawful, it must determine whether the defendant falls within one of the executive action’s three priority actions for deportation. The court concluded that the defendant should file a motion by Jan. 6, 2015, to withdraw his guilty plea in light of the executive action, or, alternatively, continue to sentencing on or before Jan. 22, 2015.
What Happens Next
In short, the court did not order the administration to stop implementing the executive action.
Notably, the court fully rejected the government’s argument that President Obama’s executive action applies only to civil deportation proceedings, not criminal proceedings. As Judge Schwab pointed out, civil deportation proceedings often arise “after – or as a result of – the individual being convicted of a crime.” As the judge said, the court could not “ignore the fact that what happens here, in this criminal proceeding, significantly and determinatively impacts what happens there, in a civil proceeding.”
This decision in Pennsylvania will not directly affect a separate federal lawsuit filed initially by 17 states (six additional states have since joined the suit) in Texas against the president’s amnesty plan for illegal aliens, embodied in the executive action.
On Dec. 4, the states filed a motion for a preliminary injunction requesting that the court order the administration to stop implementing the immigration plan. The states requested a hearing “by Dec. 31, 2014, or as soon as practicable thereafter.” We do not yet know whether the Texas court will hold a hearing by Dec. 31, but the states are clearly trying to press the court to act as quickly as possible on their lawsuit.