President Obama lost his bid to kick-start his deportation amnesty Thursday after the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4, keeping in place a lower court’s injunction, nixing the policy for the rest of Mr. Obama’s tenure and igniting political and legal debates that will carry on well beyond.
Mr. Obama said the ruling “takes us further from the country we aspire to be,” and vowed to protect most illegal immigrants from deportation anyway, saying his discretionary powers remain intact.
But the decision is a devastating blow to his hopes of a legacy-building amnesty, known by the acronym DAPA, that would have granted as many as 5 million illegal immigrants a stay of deportation and the keys to a more normal life in the U.S.: work permits and Social Security numbers enabling them to obtain driver’s licenses and other taxpayer benefits.
The ruling could have been even worse. Had Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February, still been on the court, Mr. Obama would likely have lost in a 5-4 decision that could have spanked him on broad constitutional grounds and imposed limits on future presidents, analysts said.
Instead, the tie decision leaves in place rulings by a district judge in Texas and by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Mr. Obama broke the law when he claimed he had the categorical power to grant “deferred action” to nearly half of the illegal immigrants in the country.
Republicans hailed it as a blow to Mr. Obama’s expansive claims of power, saying the court restored some of the balance that the country’s founders envisioned in the Constitution.
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“The Supreme Court’s ruling makes the president’s executive action on immigration null and void. The Constitution is clear: The president is not permitted to write laws — only Congress is. This is another major victory in our fight to restore the separation of powers,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who is leading a similar lawsuit against Obamacare.
Mr. Obama was not cowed. He said the justices never reached the big issues of the case, so it doesn’t affect any of his other policies, such as global warming and Obamacare.
He said he will abide by the ruling, effectively ending his plans for the DAPA program. But he said most of those who would have qualified still won’t be deported because they are likely to have ties to the community and relatively clean criminal records.
“They will remain low priorities for deportation,” he said.
Hispanic rights groups vowed to make Republicans pay at the ballot box in November. They said the clearest way for illegal immigrants to gain legal status is to elect lawmakers who support a path to citizenship.
“This act of cruelty delivered on immigrants by the Republican Party will serve as another watershed moment in the complete collapse of Latino and immigrant support for the GOP and its candidates,” said Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights at the Center for Community Change Action. “Our movement gets stronger when faced with anti-immigrant attacks. We expect the decision to be another factor in record Latino and pro-immigrant voter turnout in 2016.”
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Justices didn’t release an opinion in the deadlock, and they don’t say who voted on which side of the question — though based on oral arguments, it’s fairly certain the four justices appointed by Democratic presidents sided with the administration and the Republican-appointed justices sided with Texas.
Texas argued that the program forced it to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and to pay for education and health care benefits that the illegal immigrants would also be entitled to under DAPA.
They said the DAPA program broke federal procedural law because it was a major policy change never put out for public comment, that it broke immigration law by granting legal status to too many people and that it violated the president’s constitutional limits on power.
U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen sided with Texas on the procedural law question, and then the 5th Circuit sided with Texas on the immigration law challenge. Neither court reached the bigger constitutional questions.
Legally, the ruling leaves a number of unanswered questions.
The lower courts’ injunction applies nationwide, but some states have challenged that, saying that it should apply only in Texas and the 25 other states that sued to halt the amnesty. If they are successful in getting the injunction narrowed, it could leave a confusing patchwork, with illegal immigrants in some states eligible for amnesty and those in other states denied it.
It’s also unclear how much more Mr. Obama can push his nondeportation policies. But he took any further action off the table.
“I don’t anticipate that there are additional executive actions,” he said.
He had said words to that effect before, however, and then reversed himself. Indeed, in the years before his 2014 announcement of the DAPA program, he repeatedly said he didn’t have the power to grant such a broad amnesty because such a claim would make him a “king,” not a president.
He began to change his mind after Congress deadlocked on legislation to grant the chance at full citizenship rights to most illegal immigrants.
In November 2014, after massive defeats for Democrats in the midterm congressional elections, Mr. Obama announced he had been mistaken and that he did, in fact, possess broad powers to grant tentative legal status to illegal immigrants. His legal advisers said he could use “deferred action” on anyone who had a speculative path to legal status — in this case, millions of immigrants with children in the U.S. legally.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama said the court’s ruling squanders a chance to “bring rationality” to the immigration system. He said it’s now up to voters to impose their will, and they need to use November’s elections to send a message.
“Now we’ve got a choice about who we’re going to be as a country, what we’re going to teach our kids and how we want to be represented in Congress and the White House,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s 2012 amnesty, which applies to a much smaller group of Dreamers, or young adult illegal immigrants, remains in place. It was not part of the legal challenge.
The ruling also does not affect other parts of Mr. Obama’s 2014 executive actions, which included streamlining the citizenship process, giving more leeway to local police to refuse to cooperate with federal authorities and opening more slots for temporary workers.
Homeland Security officials are also working on a policy of expanding “hardship” waivers, which would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. to care for family members.