Obama announced his executive order regarding immigration that he will be signing tomorrow. He stated:

"So we’re going to offer the following deal: If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes – you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation." [...]

"The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican President and every single Democratic President for the past half century."

President Obama earlier made the argument that the President doesn't have the power to do this:

"I take the Constitution very seriously. The biggest problems that we are facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all." [...]

"There are enough laws on the books, by Congress, that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system."

"For me to simply through executive order to ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president."

Are the president's actions actually lawful? Is he able to use an executive order to delay deportation of millions of immigrants?

  • 2
    There are two questions here: first, there is the question of whether Obama is ignoring the law, and second, there is the question of whether Obama's plan is unconstitutional. Those questions should be explicitly separate.
    – Publius
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 4:14
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    @user1873 - when you said " to change or ignore", did you actually mean "does this action directly contradict the existing law", since by definition an executive action can't change the law, only Congressional action can change it
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 18:58
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    @user1873 - If you're actually interested in whether the POTUS has this authority (which is a very interesting question I'd love to see on the site) then it's irrelevant what anyone claimed in the past and you should remove the second quote. Only quotes from constitutional scholars specifically addressing or aware of this set of orders would be relevant. If you're just interested in Obama-bashing, then the quote is perfectly appropriate but the question is off-topic. The choice is yours. (Comment copied from a deleted answer, due to relevance to the question)
    – Bobson
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 19:29
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    Looking at the revision history, the question is substantially unchanged from the original post. Which is to say a lazy post using tu quoque (appeal to hypocrisy) instead of finding a separate source for constitutional law. The real question clearly was: Is Obama a hypocrite? But using a not-so-subtle indirection to ask it. I don't care what your ideological leanings are - but we must stop these sly rhetorical "questions". Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 1:20
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    @LateralFractal - Agreed. I feel like we ought to start a meta discussion about how to handle questions like this, but I can't quite figure out how to frame it.
    – Bobson
    Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 23:32

2 Answers 2


Leaving aside whether or not the President should refuse to otherwise uphold the "law of land," there is a definite precedent for him to act by Executive Order.

From 1801 (under Thomas Jefferson) until 1974 (under Richard Nixon), Presidents had the power to impound otherwise appropriated funds. This meant that Congress could authorize an agency or a law or some program, and appropriate funds to it, but then the President could refuse to actually spend the money. Forty-three states and the Mayor of the District of Columbia still hold this "fiduciary veto" over their respective constituent assemblies.

It effectively is the power of the Executive to veto programs by not spending the money. One can argue that an executive always the power to choose priorities, and this would be one means of doing that.

That said, you will note that the President lost this ability in 1974. Richard Nixon was, in the minds of Congress, too aggresively using this power of the purse. Congress stripped the President of the authority to impound funds in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. Title X in particular required the President to use allocated funds.

Rightly or wrongly, SCOTUS never intervened in either direction - neither requiring the President to use funds nor limiting Congress when it sought to curb the power of the Presidency.

Executive Action in regards to policy bears an obvious resemblance here. The President, acting in his executive capacity, can legitimize his action as one of merely prioritizing which laws to enforce. In the same way that he directed the Justice Department not to enforce drug policy in those states that have legalized it, he is merely instructing Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prioritize the deportation of criminal immigrants over what he considers to be "less dangerous" immigrants. Likewise, Congress has the authority to direct the President otherwise by creative legislation.

Long answer short - the President can order his executive authority as he sees fit, but the Congress still has checks and balances on any action or inaction he might take. Until the Supreme Court weighs in, it is "constitutional" (moreso in the British sense) but clearly on the edges of branch conflict.

  • Hmm. This is an interesting answer, but I'm not sure how much it answers the Constitutional question here. I usually see it phrased as a question of whether or not this deferred action program is an appropriate exercise of the president's prosecutorial discretion. Perhaps your answer should incorporate that?
    – Publius
    Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 4:29
  • @avi the problem with questions regarding constitutionality is that none of us can answer them. Only the court can. We can offer opinions and theories--as do many, many people in the media do surrounding these types of topics, but ultimately, it's always constitutional until a court says otherwise.
    – user1530
    Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 7:48
  • @DA Technically yes, but I think that an answerer can give a reasonably good description of the consensus of experts on this subject, if indeed there is one. And in this case, there is, and there's precedent to go with it. Furthermore, Constitutionality is independent of a Supreme Court decision, as the court could make an incorrect ruling (though I agree that gets into more difficult questions).
    – Publius
    Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 8:00
  • @Avi if there is a consensus, I'd agree with you. And that's probably how the question should have been worded "Is there a consensus of opinion (from experts on the topic) as to whether or not this order will be deemed constitutional if taken to court?" Alas, I think the answer most of the time will be "no, there is no consensus--just lots of opinions."
    – user1530
    Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 8:05

To answer Bobson's version of the question (which is a much better question)

Are the president's actions actually lawful?

Until a court says they are not, yes.

Is he able to use an executive order to change or ignore immigration law?

No. Executive orders can't change laws. The laws remain as is. It takes an act of congress to change a law. What an executive order is allowed to do is change the details of how (or if) a particular law will be enforced by the government.

  • 1
    -1, because the second part of the answer is fully unreferenced. You need to show an exact wording in the law that allows a process of excluding people wholesale from deportation; OR at least says that the deportation law is inapplicable to a large class of people that matches Obama's executive order. As stated, this is your personal opinion that his executive order did NOT change the law as opposed to changing details of implementation not covered by the law itself. As it is, your answer's second part amounts to "I agree with what Obama stated", with no backup for why he stated valid thing.
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 18:45
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 20:21
  • Unfortunately, I am unable to undelete DA's comments so that they could end up getting moved to chat, since DA deleted them himself Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 20:23

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