President Barack Obama’s dream of what he says is a more humane immigration system was quashed by the Supreme Court on Thursday with a ruling that ended a policy meant to keep families together.
The Supreme Court, on a 4-4 tie, upheld a Texas case that had stopped Obama’s executive order that put off deportations of the undocumented parents of children who are either American citizens or legal residents.
The decision was a blow to Obama personally, all but ensuring that he will leave office in January without resolving what he hoped would be a key piece of his legacy.
The decision reflected the split in the Congress and the nation, as well as the presidential campaign, over immigration. Democrats, including presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, decried the ruling for its effect on families while Republicans hailed it for stopping unilateral presidential action.
Clinton tweeted Thursday in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign has focused on controlling illegal immigration, and he put out a statement slamming Obama’s order.
This is an election year. And during election years, politicians tend to use the immigration issue to scare people with words like “amnesty” in hopes that it will whip up votes.
President Barack Obama
Underscoring the significance of the ruling, Obama himself went to the White House briefing room to repudiate it, saying that the court could not decide because it was not at its full strength of nine justices. He blamed the Senate for failing to consider his Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, to fill the vacancy after the death earlier this year in Texas of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“For more than two decades now, our immigration system, everybody acknowledges, has been broken,” Obama told reporters Thursday at the White House. “And the fact that the Supreme Court wasn’t able to issue a decision today doesn’t just set the system back even further, it takes us further from the country that we aspire to be.”
But he stressed that the solution was for Congress to approve a comprehensive overhaul to immigration law. “Sooner or later, immigration reform will get done,” Obama said. “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ ”
The court issued a rare, one-sentence decision: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.”
The decision upholds a Texas court decision freezing the 2014 plan, which was never implemented, and prevents an expansion of another program that prevents children brought to the United States without documentation from being deported. More than 4 million people living in the United States without documentation are affected by the plan, though the government does not plan to step up deportations. Obama stressed that, “This does not substantially change the status quo.”
The Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, would have allowed undocumented parents of children born in the United States or who are legal residents to stay in the country with a three-year renewable work permit if they had been in the United States since January 2010.
An earlier program, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, applies to children brought to the United States without documentation and is not affected by the court case except that it shut down an extension of work permits from two years to three years.
In a statement Trump said, “The executive amnesty from President Obama wiped away the immigration rules written by Congress, giving work permits and entitlement benefits to people illegally in the country. This split decision also makes clear what is at stake in November. The election, and the Supreme Court appointments that come with it, will decide whether or not we have a border and, hence, a country.”
In immigrant-heavy states such as Florida, California and Texas, politicians were quick to respond to the ruling.
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who led the fight against the order when he was attorney general, said in a statement, “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.” Texas led the challenge to the order and was joined by 25 other states.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court judge who filed an amicus brief along with other U.S. GOP lawmakers, said, “By going around Congress to grant legal status to millions of people here illegally, the president abused the power of his office and ignored the will of the American people. The president can’t circumvent the legislative process simply because he doesn’t get what he wants.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a former GOP presidential contender, said the decision was “a rebuke of the administration’s lawlessness.”
Texas Democrat Rep. Marc Veasey saw it very differently. “Today’s decision ... is a major blow to the millions of immigrant undocumented families who continue to live in the shadows,” he said.
Two other states with large Latino populations, Florida and California, also had strong reactions – on both sides – to the decision.
Several Republican lawmakers who want to work on immigration reform, including Florida Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and California Reps. David Valadao and Jeff Denham issued a joint statement: “The Supreme Court has spoken, but today’s decision does not resolve the issue.”
“We are committed to fixing our broken immigration system once and for all,” they said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose presidential campaign was marked by conservative criticism of his effort to pass an immigration overhaul, praised the ruling but said Congress needed to act.
“While the Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that President Obama has acted lawlessly, it does not leave Congress off the hook either,” Rubio said. The Florida Republican, who announced this week that he would seek re-election to the Senate, could be a central figure in future immigration legislation.
The House was sharply divided.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, “The Supreme Court’s deadlock on the president’s immigration actions is a disappointing setback for hard-working, law-abiding immigrant families across America. Nevertheless, we are fully committed to ending the terrible fear of separation that hangs over immigrant families.”
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had taken the rare step of joining the challenge to the order at the Supreme Court. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said, “This is a win for the Constitution, it’s a win for Congress and it’s a win in our fight to restore the separation of powers. Presidents don’t write laws – Congress writes laws. This is a case that the House weighed in on because it is fundamental to our system of checks and balances.”
But for supporters of deferring deportations, the decision was what Rocio Saenz, the executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, called a “historic failure.”
“This is personal,” said Saenz. “We will remain at the front lines, committed to defending the immigration initiatives and paving the path to lasting immigration reform.
Marielena Hincapie, executive director of National Immigration Law Center, said, “The stakes in United States v. Texas could not have been higher: Millions have watched, and waited, for the Supreme Court to affirm the president’s authority to inject some common sense into our immigration system. Today, the eight justices failed to act, and countless families will suffer as a consequence.”
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.