On Thursday, June 23, 2016, the Supreme Court blocked President Obama’s immigration executive actions. The tie decision delivers a state win to states challenging his plan to give a deportation reprieve to millions of illegal immigrants. The justices’ one sentence opinion marks a major setback for the administration, effectively ending the plan for the duration of Obama’s presidency.
The judgment could have significant political and legal consequences in a presidential election year highlighted by competing rhetoric over immigration. As the ruling was announced, pro-immigration activists filled the sidewalk in front of the court, some crying as the ruling became public. Critics of the policy claimed the decision was a strong statement against “executive abuses.”
While Obama accepted the ruling, he also made his own full-court press, saying the split decision underscores the importance of the current court vacancy and the appointment of a successor to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, to “break this tie.” So far, Senate Republicans have not considered Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.
Obama stressed that earlier changes his administration made to immigration policy are not affected, but acknowledged his most recent 2014 changes cannot go forward and additional executive actions are unlikely.
The 4-4 tie vote sets no national precedent but leaves in place the ruling by the lower court. In this case, the federal appeals court in New Orleans said the Obama administration lacked the authority to shield up to four million immigrants from deportation and make them eligible for work permits without approval from Congress.
Texas led 26 Republican-dominated states in challenging the program Obama announced in November 2014. Congressional candidates also backed the states’ lawsuit.
The immigration case dealt with two separate Obama programs. One would allow undocumented immigrants who are parents of either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents to live and work in the U.S. without the threat of deportation. The other would expand an existing program to protect from deportation a larger population of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Obama decided to move forward 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. The lawsuit was initially 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.
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