In this site’s mission statement, I said that as much as Theodore Roosevelt was a model, there would be times we would disagree with his likely approach to an issue. The Supreme Court’s recent opinion on the DACA immigration program highlights one of those differences – the wisdom of unchecked presidential power.
The Court’s opinion errs not just because it continues a program that flouts the basic rules of immigration law. The so-called Dreamers would have been granted permanent residency eventually. However, it should have occurred through the legislative process as part of a comprehensive immigration reform that created real and enforceable limits on future immigration. Instead, the Court used arcane administrative obstacles to allow the Obama Administration to evade the Congress and the people to achieve its political goals. In doing so, the Court has undermined the constitutional separation of powers and the democratic process.
The breadth and depth of the power granted by the Court to administrative agencies (and thus the presidency itself) can only be understood by delving into the details. The court admits that the DACA program (and the corresponding rule protecting the parents of DACA children) were affirmative rules subject to the Administrative Procedure Act. This law ordinarily would require such rules to be issued through a notice and public comment process and adopted only after “reasoned decisionmaking” (the Court’s language). They then could be appealed for judicial review by interested groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for immigration restrictions. Instead, the program was initiated by a three-page “memorandum” not posted for prior comment and justified on conclusory grounds that such immigrants “lacked the intent to violate the law”, are “productive contributors” and “know only this country as home”. No other justification or evidence was cited to support the memorandum. In addition, by acting through such a memorandum, the administration made it more difficult to challenge the program in the courts.
Thankfully, several states did challenge it and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a preliminary ruling holding it to be an illegal rule making. After President Trump took office, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an opinion to the Department of Homeland Security holding it to be illegal. Based on these opinions, the acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security decided to rescind the program. That should have been the end of the matter. Instead, a new set of appeals were filed and the Supreme Court struck down the rescission and sent it back to the agency so it can consider at least 8 different objections by supporters of the rule. In short, the court ruled that an agency rule having a multi-billion dollar economic impact and granting new rights to over 20 million people could be adopted without public comment or congressional input on conclusory grounds, but could only be repealed by engaging in a detailed factual and legal analysis.
Justice Thomas’s dissent accurately describes the danger to our constitutional democracy, stating that an agency is now “not only permitted, but required, to continue administering unlawful programs that it inherited from a previous administration”. It grants agencies and the beneficiaries of their largesse more rights than the people as a whole. No wonder many refer to Washington as a swamp. Policies adopted through the democratic process go in, but become so mired in governmental and special interest muck that they never come out.
To his credit, President Trump has issued an executive order prohibiting this kind of rogue administrative action. At the same time, he encourages the same culture of presidential power by constantly acting through executive orders rather than by legislation. He has never seriously pursued a comprehensive administrative law reform in the Congress. Without this, a succeeding administration can undo his restraints by its own executive order. As we approach the 2020 election, American nationalists who believe in the unique value of our constitutional democracy should insist that candidates, including Trump, commit to reform that drains the administrative swamp once and for all and opens up policy making to the American people.