In the waning days of the Obama Administration, with Trump’s promised immigration crackdown looming, over one hundred advocacy organizations joined forces to urge President Obama to permanently protect hundreds of thousands of immigrants from deportation by pardoning their breaches of civil immigration law. That pardon never materialized and, as expected, the Trump enforcement regime is sowing terror and devastation in immigrant communities nationwide. While it seems unfathomable that the current President would use his pardon power to mitigate even the most extreme applications of our nation’s immigration laws, there is unfortunately no indication that the harshest aspects of the immigration laws are likely to be revised by the current political branches. Accordingly, future Presidents will likely once again face the questions of how they may use prosecutorial discretion generally, and the pardon power specifically, to address the human toll of such laws. Since the Founding, the pardon power has been used primarily to forgive individual criminal convictions. Thus the broad civil immigration pardon, which Obama declined to issue, would have raised novel questions regarding the appropriate boundaries of the presidential pardon power. Resolution of those previously unexplored questions is necessary to help future Presidents determine whether their pardon power can serve as a safety valve to alleviate the disproportionate penalties that our immigration laws have imposed on longtime members of our communities.
This Article explores the novel concept of a civil immigration pardon. Specifically, it closely examines the language and drafting history of the Pardon Clause, exhaustively reviews early and modern pardon practice and jurisprudence, and considers whether a President could, consistent with the Constitution, use that power to protect some of the largest categories of noncitizens currently at risk of deportation. Ultimately, it argues that the President possesses the constitutional authority to categorically pardon broad classes of immigrants for civil violations of the immigration laws and to thereby provide durable and permanent protections against deportation. As millions of noncitizens and their families face a historically unprecedented wave of deportations and as traditional mechanisms for policymaking continue to fail, the immigration pardon offers an important tool for future Presidents to forgive the civil offenses that result in some of the harshest penalties in our nation’s justice system.