Last week a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals looked at five immigration cases, turned to the Department of Homeland Security, and effectively said, "Really!? Are you really going to deport these people? Or are you going to use your common sense and focus your limited law enforcement resources on dangerous criminals and national security risks?" The court went on to say, in essence, "How about this, go and think about what we've asked and let us know what you've decided by March 19. In the meantime we're going to focus our judicial resources on more important cases."
The court's orders were the result of a memorandum issued last year by John Morton, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in which he announced that the agency would employ "prosecutorial discretion" in its enforcement of the immigration law. Morton ordered ICE agents and prosecutors to focus on the removal of illegal immigrants who pose a threat to our communities -- dangerous criminals and national security risks. Each case considered by Ninth Circuit concerned an immigrant who had been in the U.S. for a long time, had strong family ties, and had no criminal record. Unfortunately, such sympathetic factors are usually meaningless to the immigration law which blindly insists on deportation without regard to fairness, justice, or common sense.
I'll leave it to others to decide whether or not the Ninth Circuit panel overstepped its authority. After all, as Judge O'Scannlain pointed out in his dissent, courts "have only the slimmest authority even to review the exercise of prosecutorial discretion." And while the Morton memo is a common sense approach to enforcing a badly broken immigration statute, it is not the law of the land.
So what was the court up to?
Every day in this country courts are forced to turn their backs on deserving immigrants and American citizens alike because of the dysfunctional immigration law. In courtrooms all across America judges sit helplessly by, their hands legally tied, as the twisted immigration law wreaks havoc on American families, stymies American business, fails to protect people fleeing persecution, and stomps on the due process rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens. Its mean spirited provisions tear husbands from wives, parents from children and brothers from sisters. Like some sinister beast in a horror movie, the immigration law creeps into peoples' lives and destroys them without so much as a second thought about the human suffering it leaves behind.
It's tempting to brush aside the Ninth Circuit judges' orders as improper judicial activism. But that misses the point. Even the U.S. Supreme Court appears to have weighed in on the broken immigration law through its decisions in cases like Padilla v. Kentucky and Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, which derive from the confusing, contradictory, and counterintuitive statute, and signal a major shift in the Supreme Court's jurisprudence toward greater protection of immigrants' rights. Nor is the Supreme Court's concern limited to the law. It has also taken the government to task for its haphazard and illogical reading of it. Late last year in Judulang v. Holder a unanimous Supreme Court called the government's interpretation of a legal provision "arbitrary and capricious" and "unmoored from the purposes and concerns of the immigration laws."
Another, more plausible, explanation for these decisions is that the nation's courts, including perhaps even the Supreme Court, are effectively throwing their hands up and imploring Congress to get to the hard work of fashioning a law that will provide America with a safe, orderly and fair immigration policy -- one that protects American families and businesses and restores civil liberties.
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