The Supreme Court recently blocked President Obama’s effort to protect more than four million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation, deadlocking 4-4 over a plan that had divided much of the nation.
The tie vote leaves intact lower federal court rulings that stopped the program in its tracks more than a year ago, after Texas and 25 other states claimed the president lacked the authority to go around Congress.
It was a sudden, crushing defeat for millions of parents who came to the country illegally and have lived in the shadows, often for decades. The administration had hoped that at least one of the more conservative justices – possibly Chief Justice John Roberts – would rule that the plan posed no financial threat to the states and, therefore, could not be challenged in court.
Like several other tie rulings since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February left the court with only eight justices, the one-sentence opinion simply announced that the court was “equally divided”and unable to muster a majority for either side.
That’s all opponents needed to block the “deferred action”program, which would have offered qualifying parents of children who were born in the United States or are legal residents the right to remain in the country for three years and apply for work authorization. The president, with two lower court strikes against him, needed an elusive fifth vote.
The immigration battle was waged on two fronts before the court: the administration fought with the states as well as with the House of Representatives, which previously blocked the president’s effort to confer legal status to some of the nation’s more than 11 million illegal immigrants.
Obama announced the “Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents”program in November 2014. It would extend protections to more than four million parents who meet the criteria, just as a 2012 program did for immigrants brought to the United States as children. More than 700,000 have qualified for that earlier program.
Once qualified, parents also could apply for work authorization, pay taxes and receive some government benefits, such as Social Security. Those with criminal backgrounds or who have arrived since 2010 would not qualify.
Texas challenged Obama’s authority to implement the policy by executive action, rather than going through Congress. Federal district court Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas, upheld the challenge in February 2015 and blocked the program from being implemented nationwide. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld that ruling last November in a 2-1 decision.
The Supreme Court agreed in January to hear the case, expanding its scope to include whether Obama’s action violated the Constitution’s “Take Care Clause”by failing to faithfully execute the nation’s immigration laws.
In written briefs and oral arguments, the Justice Department contended that the policy only would make official what was happening anyway – undocumented immigrants who do not have criminal records and are not priorities for deportation are generally left alone. The government only has enough funds to deport about 400,000 a year, they said.
Lawyers for Texas and the House of Representatives countered that while the president can decide not to deport individual immigrants, only Congress can defer action on a class-wide basis.