Monday, November 28, 2022
The Supreme Court will hear oral argument tomorrow in United States v. Texas, the case testing whether the Biden Administration's guidelines that prioritize immigration enforcement violate federal law. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Case at a Glance
In September 2021, the Department of Homeland Security issued Guidelines that set priorities for the enforcement of federal immigration law. In particular, the Guidelines prioritized three classes of noncitizens for “apprehension and removal”: (1) noncitizens who pose “a danger to national security,” for example, suspected terrorists; (2) noncitizens who pose a “threat to public safety, typically because of serious criminal conduct”; and (3) noncitizens who pose a “threat to border security,” that is, noncitizens who arrived in the United States after November 1, 2020. DHS set these priorities because Congress has not allocated sufficient resources for the agency to apprehend and remove all removable noncitizens. Texas and Louisiana sued to halt the Guidelines. The district court ruled in their favor and vacated the Guidelines nationwide. The Fifth Circuit and the Supreme Court both declined to stay that ruling pending appeal.
Federal immigration law, by its plain terms, requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to apprehend and remove removable noncitizens in certain circumstances. But given limited resources, DHS must exercise judgment in complying with those requirements. Moreover, the law generally grants executive officers some discretion in how they enforce the law. This case pits federal immigration law against those enforcement realities. But before we even get to the merits, this case raises significant questions over the states’ standing to sue, and whether the district court had authority to vacate the Guidelines nationwide.
- Do states have standing to challenge government Guidelines that set priorities for the enforcement of federal immigration law?
- Do the federal Guidelines violate the substantive provisions of immigration law?
- Did the district court have authority to vacate the Guidelines?
In September 2021, the Secretary of Homeland Security issued Guidelines for the Enforcement of Civil Immigration Law (Guidelines). The Guidelines set priorities for the “apprehension and removal” of noncitizens by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Secretary explained in an accompanying memo (the Considerations Memo) that the Guidelines were necessary because “there are more than 11 million undocumented or otherwise removable noncitizens in the United States,” yet DHS lacked “the resources to apprehend and seek the removal of every one of these noncitizens.” (We refer to the Guidelines and the Considerations Memo together as the “Guidelines” below.) In other words, Congress has allocated just a fraction of the resources that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would need to apprehend and remove every noncitizen who is deportable under the law, and the agency therefore needs to make choices in how it prioritizes enforcement. (The Guidelines apply only to “apprehension and removal.” They do not apply to “detention and release determinations” for noncitizens already in DHS custody.)
The Guidelines prioritize three classes of noncitizens for “apprehension and removal”: (1) noncitizens who pose “a danger to national security,” for example, suspected terrorists; (2) noncitizens who pose a “threat to public safety, typically because of serious criminal conduct”; and (3) noncitizens who pose a “threat to border security,” that is, noncitizens who arrived in the United States after November 1, 2020. In determining whether a noncitizen poses a threat to public safety, the Guidelines call for an assessment based on “the totality of the circumstances,” and not “bright lines or categories.” The Guidelines set “aggravating factors” that weigh in favor of enforcement, including “the gravity of the offense” and the “use of a firearm.” They also set “mitigating factors,” including “tender age” and military service.
The Guidelines, by their own terms, are discretionary. The Guidelines do “not compel an action to be taken or not taken in any particular case.” Instead, they leave “the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to the judgment of” ICE officers. And while they provide for supervisory review of a line-officer’s enforcement decision, the Guidelines do not “create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law by any party in any administrative, civil, or criminal matter.” The Secretary’s Considerations Memo explained that the Guidelines are “consistent with” and “do not purport to override” two statutory provisions that require that certain noncitizens remain in detention during removal proceedings or while awaiting removal.
Texas and Louisiana sued to halt the Guidelines. (The states previously sued to halt earlier versions of the Guidelines. But that case was dismissed when the Secretary issued the final version of the Guidelines in September 2021.) The district court ruled for the states and vacated the Guidelines nationwide. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied a stay of the district court’s order pending appeal. The Court also denied a stay pending appeal, and agreed to hear the case.
This case raises three distinct issues. Let’s examine them one at a time.
Before we even get to the merits, the government argues that the states lack standing to sue, because the states have not suffered a sufficiently direct harm. The government says that the states have alleged only that the Guidelines will require them to spend more on law enforcement and social services. But the government claims that these kinds of indirect harms are never enough for states to sue the government. (If they were, states could sue the government over any number of federal policies and programs.) Moreover, the government asserts that the states lack standing, because, as a general matter, a third party that is not subject to prosecution itself lacks standing to sue the government over its prosecutorial decisions. Finally, the government contends that the Guidelines will not necessarily lead to increased costs for the states, because they only prioritize enforcement given limited resources (and do not cut overall enforcement under limited resources).
The states counter that they have standing, because the Guidelines caused them to “bear costs related to law enforcement, recidivism, healthcare, and education,” as the district court concluded. The states say that this position is not unbounded, as the government contends. Instead, they assert that their position requires states to demonstrate the same standing requirements as other litigants, “albeit with some amount of special solicitude under certain circumstances owing to their unique place in the federal system.” The states contend that the government’s position would upend the Court’s longstanding approach to state standing by making states “disfavored litigants.”
The Guidelines’ Legality
In testing the legality of the Guidelines, two provisions of federal immigration law are principally in play. The first, at 8 U.S.C. § 1226(c), says that DHS “shall take into custody” noncitizens convicted of certain offenses when they are released from criminal custody and “may release” them “only” in limited circumstances. According to DHS, this means that these noncitizens “generally must remain in custody during the pendency of their removal proceedings,” unless their release is authorized by law or court order. But at the same time, DHS and its predecessor agency have consistently interpreted Section 1226(c) to retain the agencies’ “general prosecutorial discretion” to “choose not to pursue removal of such an individual in the first place.”
The second provision, at 8 U.S.C. § 1231(a)(1), says that DHS “shall remove” a noncitizen within 90 days after a final order of removal or other triggering event. Moreover, DHS “shall detain” such noncitizens during the 90-day removal period. “Under no circumstance” shall DHS release a noncitizen who is removable on certain criminal and national-security grounds. According to DHS, such a noncitizen “must remain detained for the duration of the removal period unless release is required to comply with a court order.”
The government argues that the Guidelines do not violate these statutory provisions. As an initial matter, it says that Section 1226(e) bars judicial review of the Guidelines. (Section 1226(e) prohibits review of the Secretary’s “discretionary judgment regarding the application of” Section 1226 and prohibits courts from “set[ting] aside any action or decision . . . regarding the detention or release of any” noncitizen.) It also says that Section 1231(h) precludes courts from requiring the government to comply with Section 1231. (Section 1231(h) reads, “Nothing in [Section 1231] shall be construed to create any substantive or procedural right or benefit that is legally enforceable by any party against the United States . . . .”)
Going to the merits, the government argues that the mandatory language in Sections 1226 and 1231 (“shall take into custody” and “shall detain”) do not override the general principal of law-enforcement discretion. The government says that this conclusion is supported by the context and history of those provisions and by the “longstanding practice spanning multiple Administrations.” According to the government, this conclusion especially holds when, as here, the government faces “perennial constraints on detention capacity.” Moreover, the government asserts that its prioritization was reasonable, and that the government sufficiently explained its reasons (and, contrary to the district court’s findings, adequately considered countervailing factors, like the risk of recidivism by non-prioritized noncitizens and the states’ interests).
Finally, the government argues that the Guidelines do not violate the requirements for notice-and-comment rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The government contends that the Guidelines meet the exceptions for “general statements of policy” and rules of agency “practice” or “procedure” under the APA, and therefore do not require notice-and-comment procedures.
The states counter that Sections 1226 and 1231 contain mandatory language that requires the government to detain nonimmigrants. They say that the Guidelines violate these plain requirements. Moreover, the states contend that the Guidelines are arbitrary and capricious in violation of the APA, because they fail “to consider important aspects of the problems that criminal aliens create, including recidivism and States’ reliance interests” on federal enforcement of immigration law. Finally, they assert that the government failed to comply with notice-and-comment procedures under the APA in issuing the Guidelines. They contend that these procedures are required, because the Guidelines “substantively changed a regulatory regime.”
The District Court’s Vacatur
The government argues first that the district court’s vacatur was improper under 5 U.S.C. § 706(2), a part of the APA that authorizes courts only to “hold unlawful and set aside” agency action. The government says that this provision “merely directs a court to disregard an unlawful agency action in resolving the case before it,” not to nullify or render it void. According to the government, this means that the district court only had authority to grant relief (like an injunction and declaratory relief) to the parties before it, and not to vacate the Guidelines nationwide.
The government argues that even if Section 706(2) authorized the district court’s nationwide vacatur, a provision in federal immigration law, 8 U.S.C. § 1252(f)(1), prohibits that relief in this context. Section 1252(f)(1) prevents courts (except the Supreme Court) from “enjoin[ing] or restrain[ing]” government immigration policies, except as they apply “to an individual alien against whom proceedings . . . have been initiated.” The government claims that the district court’s vacatur violates the plain terms of this provision, because it is not limited to the case of “an individual alien.”
The states counter that neither the APA nor Section 1252(f)(1) prevented the district court from vacating the Guidelines. As to the APA, the states say that the government’s position “that the APA does not authorize vacatur at all ignores text, context, and decades of practice and precedent.” Moreover, they say that Section 1252(f)(1)’s prohibition on court orders that “enjoin or restrain” government policies does not apply to vacatur. They contend that injunctive relief and vacatur “are different remedies with different consequences that require different showings.” For these reasons, the states say that the district court had full authority to vacate the Guidelines.
On its face, this case tests whether the mandatory immigration enforcement provisions in federal law are, in fact, mandatory. The plain language of the law, read quite narrowly, seems to require DHS to apprehend and detain noncitizens in certain circumstances. But the broader context and history of the law, along with DHS’s limited resources and the reality of executive discretion in enforcing the law, allow for significant leeway in how DHS implements those provisions. This case tests the former against the latter.
Telescoping out, the case also tests a decades-long history of executive exercise of discretion in the enforcement of immigration law, including the apprehension and detention of deportable noncitizens. Administrations under presidents of both parties have long issued guidelines and priorities for immigration enforcement similar to the Guidelines at issue here. For very practical and immediate reasons, the government has issued guidelines and priorities in order to channel limited resources, which have been perpetually insufficient to apprehend and detain all deportable noncitizens. For only slightly less direct reasons, the government has issued guidelines and priorities in order to ensure fairness in immigration enforcement and to reflect important national interests, sometimes related to foreign affairs and national security. Reading the precise provisions narrowly and literally, and ignoring the broader context and history, as the states would have it, could dispense with the long-running and bipartisan exercise of discretion in immigration enforcement.
Telescoping out once more, this case is just one front in the increasingly partisan battles over immigration. In particular, the case is one among the several efforts that border states and certain Republican state officials are lodging, or have lodged, against immigration policies and practices by Democrats. As an effort in the courts (and not just in ordinary politics), this case raises important questions about the authority and role of the courts in this increasingly partisan arena. For example: Should the courts hear the states’ challenge to federal enforcement priorities when the states’ only harms are secondary, and may not be remedied by judicial relief, anyway? Is it appropriate for a single district court, hand-selected by the plaintiffs, to vacate the Guidelines nationwide?
Notwithstanding the multi-layered underlying issues, however, the case gives the Court several easy exit ramps. For one, the Court could rule that the states lack standing. For another, the Court could rule that the district court lacked authority to vacate the Guidelines nationwide. For a third, the Court could rule that the immigration provisions cited by the states themselves bar courts from halting government policy. Look for those justices who would prefer to stay out of this hot-button political dispute to lean heavily into these issues at oral argument.