Obama immigration plan blocked by 4-4 tie at Supreme Court
Posted June 23
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court deadlocked Thursday on President Barack Obama's immigration plan that sought to shield up to 4 million people living in the U.S. illegally from deportation, effectively killing the plan for the rest of his presidency.
The outcome underscores that the direction of U.S. immigration policy will be determined in large part by this fall's presidential election, a campaign in which immigration already has played an outsized role.
People who would have benefited from Obama's plan face no imminent threat of deportation because Congress has provided money to deal with only a small percentage of people who live in the country illegally, and the president retains ample discretion to decide whom to deport. But Obama's effort to expand that protection to many others is effectively stymied.
Elizabeth Mejia, whose parents fled the civil war in Nicaragua and brought her to the U.S. when she was 1, said she worries about going though life in immigration limbo.
"With them not making a decision, with this not happening today, it just puts me in the worst case," said Mejia, 28. "Time keeps going by, and it’s kind of like, what do I do?"
The U.S. "is my homeland," she said, yet she lacks official residency.
"I call it being half legal," she said. "It’s already hard to be without a green card to get a decent job to provide for yourself and not rely on others. This [a court ruling] would’ve given me that chance."
Obama said Thursday's impasse "takes us further from the country we aspire to be."
The 4-4 tie vote sets no national precedent but leaves in place the ruling by the lower court. The justices issued a one-sentence opinion, with no further comment.
Angeline Echeverria, executive director of Raleigh-based Latino advocacy group El Pueblo, said she was "saddened" the the Supreme Court's decision and the resulting end to Obama's deferred-action programs for immigrants, which she said have benefited thousands of people in North Carolina.
"While we are disappointed in the actions of our governor and the others who took part in this lawsuit, we will continue to support future programs that help immigrant families, as we promote the well-being of all North Carolina residents," Echeverria said in a statement.
Gov. Pat McCrory's office referred requests for comment to his campaign, which issued a statement late Thursday criticizing Attorney General Roy Cooper, his Democratic opponent in the November election, for not participating in the lawsuit against the president's executive orders.
North Carolina was among 26 states to challenge the program Obama announced in November 2014. Congressional Republicans also backed the states' lawsuit.
Obama decided to move forward with protections for parents of children who are in the country legally and an expansion of the program that benefits people who were brought to this country as children after Republicans won control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections, and the chances for an immigration overhaul, already remote, were further diminished.
The Senate had passed a broad immigration bill with Democratic and Republican support in 2013, but the measure went nowhere in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.
The states quickly went to court to block the Obama initiatives. Their lawsuit was heard by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas. Hanen previously had criticized the administration for lax immigration enforcement.
Hanen sided with the states, blocking the programs from taking effect. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled for the states, and the Justice Department rushed an appeal to the high court so that it could be heard this term.
A nine-justice court agreed to hear the case in January, but by the time of the arguments in late April, Justice Antonin Scalia had died. That left eight justices to decide the case, and the court presumably split along liberal and conservative lines, although the court did not say how each justice voted.
Had Scalia still been alive, though, he almost certainly would have voted with his fellow conservatives to form a majority in favor of the states.
Hila Moss, an attorney with the U.S Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said the court deadlock will affect more than 120,000 undocumented people in North Carolina.
"This would’ve helped a lot of families stay together, stay connected," Moss said. "There are a lot of children out there who just want to live happily with mom and dad without the fear mom and dad are going to be gone one day."
But Mitch Kokai, a spokesman for the conservative John Locke Foundation, called Obama's orders "an unconstitutional power grab."
"To do what President Obama wanted to do, whether you like it or not, it should’ve gone through Congress," Kokai said.
In practical terms, a victory by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in November could mean an end to the deferred-action programs anyway, since he has vowed to deport the roughly 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally.
If Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is elected, she could attempt to revive the programs or work with the new Congress on comprehensive immigration legislation.
If Clinton wins, the Senate will at some point fill the vacancy created by Scalia's death – either with Obama's nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, or a Clinton choice. In either case, legal challenges to executive action under her administration would come to a court that would have a majority of Democratic-appointed justices and, in all likelihood, give efforts to help immigrants a friendlier reception.