A federal appeals court said President Obama’s own words claiming powers to “change the law” were part of the reason it struck down his deportation amnesty, in a ruling late Monday that reaffirmed the president must carry out laws and doesn’t have blanket powers to waive them.
The 2-1 ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals punctures Mr. Obama’s immigration plans and is the latest in a series of major court rulings putting limits on the president’s claims of expansive executive powers to enact his agenda without having to get congressional buy-in.
In an opinion freighted with meaning for the separation of powers battles, Judge Jerry E. Smith, writing for himself and Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, singled out Mr. Obama’s own claim that he acted to rewrite the law because Congress wouldn’t pass the bill he wanted.
The key remark came in a speech in Chicago just days after his Nov. 20, 2014, announcement detailing his executive actions. Fed up with a heckler who was chiding him for boosting the number of deportations, Mr. Obama fired back, agreeing that he’d overseen a spike in deportations.
“But what you are not paying attention to is the fact that I just took an action to change the law,” the president said.
The two judges said the Justice Department failed to explain away Mr. Obama’s remarks.
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“At oral argument, and despite being given several opportunities, the attorney for the United States was unable to reconcile that remark with the position that the government now takes,” Judge Smith wrote.
Whether Mr. Obama acted within the law is the crux of the case.
Texas and 25 other states, which sued to stop the amnesty, argue Mr. Obama went beyond the boundaries set in the Immigration and Nationality Act, which sets out specific instances where, on a case-by-case basis, the Homeland Security secretary can waive penalties and allow illegal immigrants to stay, granting them work permits which then entitle them to Social Security cards, tax credits and state driver’s licenses.
A federal district court in Texas agreed with the states, halting Mr. Obama’s policy, and now an appeals court has also sided with the states.
Writing in dissent on Monday, Judge Carolyn Dineen King dismissed Mr. Obama’s claim that he changed the law, saying presidents often use imprecise language when talking about laws. She said Mr. Obama wasn’t making a legal argument in his response to the heckler.
Mr. Obama’s plan, known officially as Deferred Action for Parental Arrivals, or DAPA, was intended to grant up to 5 million illegal immigrants a proactive three-year stay of deportation and to give them work permits, allowing them to come out of the shadows and join American society — though they were still considered to be in the country illegally. To qualify, illegal immigrants had to be parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent resident children.
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The president characterized his plan as a use of prosecutorial discretion, reasoning that he was never going to deport them anyway, so they should be granted some more firm status.
But the court ruled that he not only didn’t follow the usual rules in making a major policy change, but that his claims of power to grant tentative legal status to a massive class of people went beyond the waiver powers Congress granted him in the law.
Monday’s decision is already reverberating across the presidential debate, with Hispanic-rights activists insisting Mr. Obama file an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court, and vowing to make immigration an issue in the 2016 election.
The top three Democratic candidates for president had already said they not only thought what Mr. Obama was doing was legal, but they had vowed to go beyond it and expand the amnesty to still more illegal immigrants. GOP candidates, meanwhile, have vowed to repeal Mr. Obama’s policies.