In light of congressional inaction on immigration—and increasing pressure from progressives, human rights groups and the Hispanic community—President Barack Obama last year announced a policy change that would shield a broad category of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Claiming Obama had overstepped his authority, the state of Texas spearheaded a lawsuit to block the policy change that would have allowed undocumented parents of American kids to obtain work permits and driver's licenses without the threat of deportation.
In a split decision handed down Monday afternoon, the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Obama’s executive action on immigration—which opponents have called “amnesty”—cannot go into effect until a full trial on the matter. That means an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants with deep ties to the United States (those who either have citizen or permanent resident children) and no criminal record will continue to face the threat of deportation.
In court, Texas has argued that Obama not only circumvented Congress but also imposed an unfunded mandate on states (which, Texas argues, would bear the cost of providing immigrants driver’s licenses and other benefits). The courts here have been particularly receptive to those claims. In February, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville ruled against the Obama administration, saying it didn’t comply with laws governing federal regulations and public input for policy changes. And in May, a three-judge panel at the Fifth Circuit rejected the administration’s emergency request to lift an injunction that blocks them from carrying out the new policy.
The case went back to the Fifth Circuit this summer after the administration appealed the lower court ruling from Hanen. Among other things, the administration argued it was simply prioritizing its resources—or, as Obama put it in his speech last November, ensuring federal immigration officials were focused on deporting “felons, not families; criminals, not children; gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” The Obama administration also argued that Hanen abused his authority by blocking the program's rollout across the country.
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The Fifth Circuit judges writing Monday’s 70-page majority opinion disagreed on both points. The two judges, Reagan and George W. Bush appointees, even acknowledged the warnings from both the administration and immigrant rights groups pushing for the policy change—that undocumented immigrants might be discouraged from cooperating with law enforcement or paying their taxes if they're still in the shadows fearing deportation. "[T]hose are burdens that Congress knowingly created, and it is not our place to second-guess those decisions," the opinion says.
While immigrant rights groups lamented the decision and urged the Obama administration to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court (it’s unclear whether the court, which just began its current term, has enough time to even take the case this term), Gov. Greg Abbott, who filed the lawsuit last December during his final days as state attorney general, cheered the ruling. “The court’s decision is a vindication for the rule of law and the Constitution,” Abbott said in a statement. “The president’s job is to enforce the immigration laws, not rewrite them. President Obama should abandon his lawless executive amnesty program and start enforcing the law today.”
In a 53-page dissenting opinion Monday, Fifth Circuit Judge Carolyn Dineen King called the majority’s decision to block the policy “a mistake,” saying “federal courts should not inject themselves into such matters of prosecutorial discretion.”
“I have a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made,” King wrote. “That mistake has been exacerbated by the extended delay that has occurred in deciding this ‘expedited’ appeal. There is no justification for that delay.”