Immigration activists vowed Republicans will pay a political price after a federal appeals court kept President Barack Obama’s action to defer deportation on hold.
The 2-1 decision by a panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday was a victory for opponents of Obama’s plan to extend deportation protection and offer work permits to up to five million undocumented immigrants. It also probably will push the court case stemming from a suit by 26 states into the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Backers of Obama’s action said the case will exacerbate frustration among Hispanic voters, an increasingly powerful bloc, and solidify their anger at Republican lawmakers who’ve thwarted changes to U.S. immigration law.
“The GOP is trying to make this into some sort of legal issue about the president’s executive authority,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group, said in a telephone interview. For Hispanics, “It’s not going to be a debate about some abstract constitutional principle.”
The appeals court in New Orleans refused to lift a federal judge’s injunction banning Obama’s changes from taking effect before the litigation brought by the states is resolved. The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing the ruling and considering its next steps, which might include asking the full panel of the New Orleans appeals court to reconsider its request, according to the administration.
The court’s ruling only affects the administration’s attempted expansion of an existing deferred deportation program to the parents of children who are either U.S. citizens or legal residents, and to a larger group of immigrants who entered the country legally as children. It won’t change Obama’s directives to target for deportation those who are a threat to “national security, public safety, and border security.”
While Republican Party officials have placed a premium on boosting outreach to Hispanic voters, who could prove pivotal in the swing states of Florida, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio, most of the party’s presidential candidates have been critical of Obama’s use of executive power to ease immigration rules.
Hillary Clinton, the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, has already staked out clear support for Obama’s executive actions on immigration and promised to go further in pushing for citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“The reality is for both Democrats and Republicans that they’re going to have to contend with a Latino and immigrant vote,” said Kica Matos, spokeswoman for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement. “There is going to be a point of reckoning for those candidates with an anti-immigrant agenda.”
The ruling is certain to energize Republican voters who oppose any move to give undocumented immigrants legal status and view Obama’s executive actions as overreaching. That message was amplified by some Republican lawmakers on Tuesday.
“This decision is an important victory for the rule of law and for every legal immigrant who is disrespected by the president’s unconstitutional amnesty,” Representative Diane Black, a Tennessee Republican, said in a statement.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement, said that his members “are leading the fight to rein in President Obama’s executive overreach and uphold our Constitution, and we will continue to follow this case closely.”
Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire state Republican chairman, said the legal battle over Obama’s immigration action risks encouraging polarizing remarks from the party’s presidential candidates during the primaries next year in an attempt to appeal for support from the most conservative voters. That could damage efforts to win over Hispanic voters in the November election, he said.
“I suspect there are a number of Democratic operatives that are quietly delighted at the ruling today,” said Cullen, a founder of Americans by Choice, a pro-immigration advocacy group. “They’re hoping that somebody like Ted Cruz will say something intemperate in response to the ruling because then they can portray every Republican as anti-immigrant and anti-reform.”
Cesar Vargas, the co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, said the impact of the ruling is felt deeply in the Hispanic community. It’s hard to ignore that the president’s action would have provided relief for his 70-year-old mother, he said, something shared with millions of families.
“With Republicans doing this, it definitely demonstrates who is on our side and who isn’t, and who we should support and who we shouldn’t,” he said.
Clarissa Martinez De Castro, a deputy vice president at the National Council of La Raza, said an estimated six in 10 voters know an undocumented immigrant.
“The interesting thing is that by delaying this, the Republicans are actually potentially putting themselves into a sharper corner on the issue of immigration,” she said.
Clinton won praise from immigration advocates earlier this month when she held a roundtable in Nevada with young adults whose parents face deportation and fully embraced citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
“It seems pretty clear that the Clinton campaign is going to try to increase both turnout and margin of Latino voters for the Democrat on the ballot,” Sharry said.
Immigration has already been a point of contention within the Republican presidential race. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush told Fox News earlier this month that he would wait until Congress revamps immigration law before overturning the president’s actions.
“If you’ve been here for an extended period of time, you have no nexus to the country of your parents,” Bush said. “What are we supposed to do? Marginalize these people forever?”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has said that he wants to slowly phase out the president’s program, first implemented in 2012, offering benefits to a smaller group of undocumented immigrants who entered the country illegally as children. Cruz, a senator from Texas, has said his first act as president would be nullifying the president’s executive actions on immigration and other issues.