Immigration Law after a Century of Plenary Power: Phantom Constitutional Norms and Statutory Interpretation

Yale Law Journal 100 (3):545-613 (1990)
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The Article addresses itself to immigration law governing the admission and expulsion of aliens, exploring the gap between the "plenary power" doctrine––the notion that Congress and the executive branch have broad and often exclusive authority over immigration decisions––and the actual practice of many federal courts in the immigration field. Federal courts, the author argues, often apply two distinct sets of constitutional norms in immigration cases, one set drawn from immigration law proper and applied directly to constitutional cases, and a second, "phantom norm" set, borrowed from mainstream public law and applied in the interpretation of immigration statutes. The result is an immigration law regime in which the plenary power doctrine has been undermined, but not reversed, through statutory interpretation. The Article explores the reasons for the application of "phantom norms" to immigration statutes and the problems created by that practice, ultimately recommending a direct reassessment of plenary power as a constitutional doctrine. In so doing, the Article serves not only as an examination of the interpretive dynamics peculiar to immigration law but also as an exemplary study of a general problem of legal process––the relationship between statutory interpretation and constitutional law.
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