President Barack Obama’s sweeping executive actions that would have shielded an estimated 5 million immigrants from deportation will remain on hold after an evenly divided U.S. Supreme Court couldn’t break a 4-4 deadlock Thursday.
The ruling leaves in place the decisions by a federal judge in Brownsville and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to block implementation of the programs until the case can be heard at the district court level. It is a significant blow to Obama, who had hoped to roll out the expansion of the program before the end of his presidency.
“Today’s decision keeps in place what we have maintained from the very start: One person, even a president, cannot unilaterally change the law,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a news release. “This is … a victory for those who believe in the separation of powers and the rule of law.”
Obama said the ruling is a disappointment for the millions of immigrants who will remain in the shadows as a result.
“Today’s decision is frustrating to those who seek to grow our economy and bring a rationality to our immigration system,” he said at a White House news conference. “It is heartbreaking for the millions of immigrants who have made their lives here.”
He added that the court’s inability to break a tie was a stark reminder of the vacancy on the bench that followed the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and he rebuked Republican lawmakers for refusing to consider his nominee, Merrick Garland, to fill it.
The court’s decision leaves the fate of Obama’s immigration actions in the hands of federal Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville. Depending on the outcome in that court, the case could be appealed and potentially reach the Supreme Court again.
About 743,000 immigrants in Texas would have been eligible for deportation relief under Obama’s actions in November 2014.
Millions of unauthorized immigrants in the country and their advocates had seen Obama’s deportation relief programs as the best opportunity to normalize their immigration status.
“The court’s decision means that as many as 5 million immigrants in the U.S. remain in constant fear of being separated from their families at any time, and possibly deported,” said Jose P. Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project, a workers and immigrants rights group based in Austin. “Workers Defense and our families will continue to fight for comprehensive immigration reform despite this decision.”
Texas and a coalition that grew to 26 states sued the federal government in 2014 after Obama announced expansions to the deferred action program initially rolled out in 2012 that would allow millions of immigrants to become eligible for deportation relief.
The actions created the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program, which would make nearly 4 million immigrants who were parents of U.S. citizens or legal residents eligible for relief, and expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program so that about 1.5 million immigrants were newly qualified for its benefits.
The expansion of the DACA program would do away with an age limit that was imposed on the 2012 program and expanded the pool of eligible people to those who arrived in the country as children before Jan. 1, 2010.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who filed the lawsuit against the Obama administration when he was the state’s attorney general, called Thursday’s ruling a victory for law-abiding Americans and immigrants who came to the country by following the law.
“The action taken by the president was an unauthorized abuse of presidential power that trampled the Constitution, and the Supreme Court rightly denied the president the ability to grant amnesty contrary to immigration laws,” Abbott said in a news release.
Immigrant rights advocates said they intend to keep fighting for the implementation of the programs and comprehensive immigration reform.
“We were hoping for a better outcome, but I’m not surprised with what the Supreme Court decided,” said Maria Reza, a recent University of Texas graduate and activist who benefited from deferred action in 2012 and hoped her mother would reap the benefits of the latest orders. “We know that now it goes back to the lower courts, but it’s not a complete loss. There’s still ways we can fight this.”
Bill Beardall, executive director of the Equal Justice Center in Austin, said his group would work to educate the immigrant community about what the Supreme Court’s decision means for their future and to continue outreach to people who are eligible for the original DACA program, which isn’t affected by Thursday’s ruling.
The decision, however, likely ends any hope that the expanded programs will be rolled out before the end of Obama’s term, complicating his legacy on immigration. When he first campaigned for president in 2008, Obama promised to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said the administration would have probably liked to do more for unauthorized immigrants in the country, but she added that Obama pushed his authority as far as he could in search of a resolution, including urging Congress to act, setting deportation enforcement priorities and rolling out his initial deferred action program in 2012.
Meissner said it is likely that the Supreme Court’s decision will have a strong impact on the November elections, especially because the next president could fill the seat on the bench that remains empty. Among the presumptive nominees, Hillary Clinton has said she would expand the programs, while Donald Trump has promised to do away with them.
For Reza, whose mother remains at risk of deportation, the setback hurts not only Obama’s legacy on immigration, but also the lives of those who fought for the programs.
“It’s his legacy, but it’s also ours,” she said. “We’re the ones who made DACA happen, so DACA is part of our legacy. He might have signed the papers, but it was through our advocacy. We will continue to fight.”
743,000 — Number of people in Texas who would be eligible for deportation relief under Obama’s executive actions
37,000 — Number of people in Travis County who would be eligible for deportation relief under Obama’s executive actions
Source: Migration Policy Institute
What happens next
• Enforcement of the Obama administration’s 2014 deferred-action policy, which was challenged by 26 Republican-led states, remains blocked by a nationwide injunction.
• The case returns to the federal court in Brownsville, where Judge Andrew Hanen, who initially blocked the program, has called a conference hearing in August about ethics issues involving Justice Department lawyers who appeared in his courtroom. There is no timeline for when the case would be resolved at this level.
• Voters on both sides of the issue will be looking to the presidential elections in November. Depending on the outcome, the case in Brownsville could be appealed and return to the Supreme Court, where the current vacancy on the bench could be crucial to the outcome.]]>