Which Undocumented Persons Can Be Helped by Prosecutorial Discretion

Under U.S. immigration law, prosecutorial discretion (PD) refers to the power that ICE has to discontinue working on a deportation case.

By , J.D. University of Washington School of Law
Updated 9/28/2023

This article will discuss who could potentially apply for a temporary remedy against deportation known as "prosecutorial discretion" or PD. It's not a true immigration "status" in the United States, but more like an in-between state; a legal limbo. A person granted prosecutorial discretion enjoys a few basic immigration benefits, such as potentially a work permit (if they're also grant "deferred action") and freedom from fear of deportation, for a limited time. Yet they have no clear path to U.S. lawful permanent residency (a green card).

Warning: If you are an undocumented person in the U.S. who is not in removal (deportation) proceedings, you should not contact U.S. immigration authorities to try to request prosecutorial discretion without first talking to an attorney. In addition to refusing to exercise prosecutorial discretion, these authorities might take steps to remove (deport) you.

What Is Prosecutorial Discretion in the Immigration Context?

Under U.S. immigration law, prosecutorial discretion (PD) refers to the power that U.S. immigration agencies (ICE, as well as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or USCIS, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)) have to discontinue working on a deportation case because it's "low priority." Sometimes it simply means they don't issue a Notice to Appear (NTA) in immigration court when they normally would.

An agency can exercise its PD in many different ways. For example, ICE can join in asking an immigration judge to administratively close someone's case. Or, ICE might agree to ask an immigration judge to reopen a case so that the non-citizen can apply for relief from removal. (For information about possible defenses against deportation, see Immigrants in Deportation or Removal Proceedings.) Another possibility is for ICE to simply not act on an existing removal order.

The relevant U.S. government agency decides on a case-by-case basis whether or not to exercise PD, unless it has been directed by an executive action to grant or refuse PD. Also, PD opportunities can be authorized through a specific program with a separate application process, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Why Does the U.S. Government Exercise PD at All?

The U.S. government exercises PD because it has limited resources and needs to use those carefully to its meet its priorities. It literally does not have the budget to deport more than approximately 5% of the undocumented population in the U.S., according to recent estimates. Deporting a person involves costly court proceedings (potentially through many levels of appeal), transportation to their home country, and more.

By exercising PD; that is, choosing to overlook some undocumented persons in favor of going after others who pose a greater threat to U.S. society; ICE can quickly close cases that are less important and save time and resources for important cases.

How Willing Has the U.S. Government Been to Grant Prosecutorial Discretion in Recent Years?

A person's chances of benefitting from prosecutorial discretion depend a lot on current policy, driven particularly by the U.S. president.

During the time that Donald Trump was in office (starting in 2017), the priorities were not observed at all. The Administration directed U.S. officials to deport virtually any undocumented person that ICE or other enforcement personnel came in contact with.

The Biden Administration has reinstituted an earlier focus on undocumented people who pose the greatest risk to the United States. It issued revised priorities in September, 2021 (in what's often called the "Mayorkas Memo"), which stated the primary focus to be on threats to national security and public safety. It also ceased to spotlight people with aggravated felonies or gang-related convictions as high priorities. As for low priorities, it mentioned people who:

  • are of advanced or tender age
  • have spent a long time in the United States
  • have a mental condition that could have contributed to the criminal conduct, or a physical or mental condition requiring care or treatment
  • are victims of crime or victims, witnesses, or parties to legal proceedings
  • have family in the United States whom they provide or care for
  • might be eligible for humanitarian protection or other immigration
  • are in the military or other public service, or their immediate family members are
  • have been rehabilitated since a crime, or the conviction has been vacated or expunged, or it's been a long time since that conviction.

PD decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, largely handled by ICE's Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA). Internal guidance to how they make these decisions in light of the overall policy can be found in a September 28, 2023 memo.

Benefits for Undocumented Persons Who Obtain PD

If you are in deportation proceedings in immigration court, and are able to apply for PD, the obvious benefit is that it might mean that you will not be deported and your immigration court case will be closed at least temporarily. But you will not automatically receive other immigration benefits—such as work authorization—just because you receive PD. Nor can your family members (spouse and children) receive PD through you.

You will have to independently qualify for any immigration benefit that you request. For example, if you have applied for asylum before an Immigration Judge (IJ) and are awaiting a hearing or decision, but you request and receive a form of PD called "administrative closure" (meaning the IJ takes your case off of the court calendar for months or years) you might be able to get work authorization based on your "pending" (undecided) asylum application.

Why PD Is Not Always the Best Option

Because the benefits of PD can be limited, it is sometimes better to fight removal in immigration court or file an appeal. Some of the types of relief from removal that might be available to you are described at Immigrants in Deportation or Removal Proceedings.

However, figuring out whether or not you can win your immigration case, avoid deportation, and receive immigration benefits can be complicated. Before deciding what path is right for you, it's wise to talk to a well-qualified immigration attorney.

Who Can Get PD?

In theory, any non-citizen of the U.S. who lacks lawful immigration status can get PD. However, you will want to show some convincing, positive factors in your case. Examples include family ties, a solid employment history, membership in community groups or places of worship, caregiving for family members with medical issues, and the like.

An applicant who has any sort of serious criminal history is unlikely to receive a PD grant. ICE will demand that you have fingerprints taken so it can run a background check before it considers granting PD. If you have a criminal record, you should definitely have an attorney evaluate your case. A legal evaluation will help you figure out:

  • whether requesting PD makes sense
  • how your criminal history might affect your chances of receiving PD, and
  • whether you should pursue other options beside PD, such as defending against deportation or filing an appeal.

Your immigration attorney might also be able to suggest ways in which you might—with the help of a criminal defense attorney—be able to "clean" your criminal record to minimize or eliminate negative immigration consequences. A criminal record that has no or few immigration consequences might increase your chances of receiving PD, or even make it possible for you to win your immigration court case.

Can I Request PD at Any Time?

As mentioned above, if you are not already in deportation proceedings, you should talk to an immigration attorney before talking to ICE. But if ICE is already trying to deport you, you can ask for PD at any time—while in front of the IJ, after the judge has already ordered your deportation (for example, by a joint motion to reopen the case), or while appealing your case. (And sometimes the U.S. government initiates a PD grant on its own, without a request.)

However, the government attorney in your case will be more likely to grant PD before needing to prepare for your individual hearing before the IJ. ICE officials are supposed to exercise PD as early in the deportation process as possible, to avoid wasting resources. Thus, your chances of receiving PD are better the earlier you submit your request.

Is There a Form to Use to Request Prosecutorial Discretion?

Each U.S. government agency has its own procedures for making PD requests. Your attorney, if you have one, will know or find out what these procedures are. Often they involve starting with an email to ICE's Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA). There is no fee required with a PD request.

If representing yourself in immigration court, you should tell the IJ and the government attorney that you want to request PD. Then, the government attorney should tell you how to submit a request.

There is no form to fill out (another reason why it's wise to hire an attorney). A well-prepared request will include:

  • a detailed statement explaining why you deserve PD, summarizing and describing how the positive factors outweigh the negative factors in your case
  • a personal statement explaining why you deserve PD and ideally stating that you have no criminal convictions in the U.S. or elsewhere
  • evidence showing positive factors in your case, such as relationships with U.S. citizens or permanent residents (for example, copies of birth certificates for children born in the United States), and
  • FBI or state background check or police clearance letters from every city you have lived in.

Depending on your situation, you might think up other relevant documents to include.

What If My Request for PD Is Denied?

If ICE denies your request for PD, you can always ask for PD again, even after you've been ordered removed. But you would first want to figure out whether there is something that you forgot to tell it last time. Otherwise, ICE would probably just deny your request again. It might also be a good idea to hire a new or different attorney before making a second request.

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