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Open Access Publications from the University of California

DACA, DAPA, and Discretionary Executive Power: Immigrants Outside the Law


In June 2012, President Barack Obama announced the creation of DACA, a program which instructed executive branch officials to exercise their administrative discretion to defer the deportation of eligible applicants. Two years later, in November 2014, President Obama announced the DAPA program, which expanded DACA and extended this exercise of discretion to parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Both announcements were met by controversy. Critics charged that, by altering the legal regime from one in which undocumented immigrants were to be deported to one of “executive amnesty,” President Obama exceeded his authority, turning him into an “emperor” or a “king.” The President’s supporters insisted, rather, that President Obama was acting fully within his executive authority. Understanding this debate requires one both to delve into the complicated legal context, and to look beyond legal doctrine. The controversy reflected broader concerns about discretionary executive power and the law, linked to anxiety regarding the sovereign’s head of state as “he who decides on the state of exception.” It also derived from specific concerns about President Obama as the embodiment of the sovereign: his racialized body, depicted as illegitimate and foreign, furthered the perception of his policies as illegal. Lastly, the fact that undocumented immigrants are not perceived as members of the body politic helped to produce this vision of DACA and DAPA as lawless action. In this telling, the sovereign actor, the beneficiaries of his action, and the act itself were all cast as illegitimate through a mutually reinforcing logic; all were exceptions that stood “outside the law.”

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