Supreme Court Deadlock Blocks Obama's Immigration Reforms

Undocumented mothers rally for DAPA last month.
Undocumented mothers rally for DAPA last month.
Meagan Flynn

The U.S. Supreme Court split evenly Thursday morning in deciding whether President Barack Obama's executive-action immigration reforms were within his authority — but because of the 4-4 tie, the high court deferred to a lower court ruling that blocked them.

Texas sued the federal government last year over Obama's November 2014 Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program and the expansion of its sister reform, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Each provided temporary work permits and driver's licenses to thousands of undocumented immigrants and shielded them from deportation.

But in February 2015, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville suspended the reforms with a preliminary injunction, agreeing with Texas that Obama had tried to rewrite immigration laws and had overstepped his role. The state also argued that issuing thousands of additional driver's licenses was too much of a burden.

In the case of a tie in the Supreme Court, justices defer to the lower court's ruling — meaning Hanen's injunction against all of DAPA and the expansion of DACA will remain in place. The Supreme court is short-handed, with eight members, following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February.

Despite the ruling, advocacy groups vowed to continue fighting for the thousands of immigrants left to live fearing separation from their families. Because the Supreme Court deadlocked, the justices' decision is not precedent-setting, and once the court again has nine members, the tie does not rule out a future challenge to Hanen's injunction.

“This all about politics for our opponents, but for the millions of immigrant families in Texas, it’s personal," Elsa Caballero, president of Service Employees International Union, which frequently advocates for undocumented immigrants, said in a statement. "From Trump to extremist Republicans who continue to spout anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, we will deliver our response at the ballot box come November."

Texas officials, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, lauded the court's decision.

“Today’s decision keeps in place what we have maintained from the very start: One person, even a president, cannot unilaterally change the law," Paxton said in a statement.

Waiting for the Supreme Court's decision, many undocumented immigrants came together for rallies, urging the high court to keep their families safe. At one such rally in north Houston, Gabriela Contreras said she feared even to leave her home to go pick up her kids from school, afraid she would be stopped for a traffic ticket and would never make it there. Another mom who would have benefited from DAPA said she couldn't give her children a Christmas last year because the charity that provided presents said it couldn't help her unless she had a valid ID.

Yet another, Patricia Lopez, was a single mother with two severely disabled children, who would not be able to go back to Mexico with Lopez should she be deported, because the family relies on specialized doctors here in the States.

“I know they can be put up with foster parents, but it's not the same thing," Lopez said.  "They just take care of them, but they don't love them. The love, it makes a big difference.”


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