Demystifying Employment Authorization and Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Cases

01 January 2015

On November 20, 2014, President Barack Obama announced a series of immigration programs aimed to reform the immigration system. Deferred Action for Parents of Americans or Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and extended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) represent two such programs announced by the President. Both programs extend deferred action (one form of prosecutorial discretion) to qualifying individuals. Deferred action has been part of the immigration system for more than 50 years, and has been named explicitly by Congress, federal courts, and the agencies responsible for administering immigration laws. Additionally, regulations list deferred action as one basis for work authorization. The President’s deferred action programs offered room for a healthy debate about immigration law and policy. The debate was intensified by a lawsuit brought by the state of Texas and 25 other states challenging the deferred action programs, and a subsequent judicial opinion enjoining these programs. Much of the tension has centered on the ability for a deferred action grantee to obtain ancillary benefits like employment authorization or lawful presence. This conflict has enabled great distortion about the limits and benefits of prosecutorial discretion in immigration law. In this Article, I seek to clarify the relationship between prosecutorial discretion and employment authorization and describe the historical precedent for allowing qualifying noncitizens to apply for work authorization based on a prosecutorial discretion grant. I also examine the policy questions that are raised by the current legal framework and policy for work authorization. My methodology for this Article is to review the primary and secondary sources of law for prosecutorial discretion and work authorization; analyze a related data set of more than 200,000 work authorization applications processed by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act; and begin a policy discussion on the benefits of enabling prosecutorial discretion beneficiaries to be authorized to work in the United States. This Article is the first to analyze the law and policy of work authorization and prosecutorial discretion and builds naturally from my body of work developed on the role of immigration prosecutorial discretion generally, and deferred action in particular.