Obama Immigration Plan Blocked as U.S. High Court Deadlocks

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An American flag flies at half mast following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Feb. 14, 2016.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • 4-4 split effectively stops program until after election
  • Plan sought to give millions deportation shield, work rights

The U.S. Supreme Court divided evenly over President Barack Obama’s plan to shield as many as 4 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation, a deadlock that effectively kills the initiative for the rest of his presidency.

The 4-4 split leaves intact an appeals court ruling that said Obama overstepped his authority, along with a trial judge’s order preventing the program from taking effect. The high court action doesn’t mean those immigrants will be deported, but it blocks a program that would have let them seek work permits.

Obama called the ruling "heartbreaking" for millions of immigrants, though those who don’t commit crimes or present a security risk will remain low priorities for deportation. The court was unable to reach a decision because Senate Republicans refuse to consider confirming high court nominee Merrick Garland, the president said.

“Immigration is not something to fear. We don’t have to wall ourselves off from those who may not look like us right now,” the president said. Still, he added, “We’re going to have to abide by that ruling until an election and a confirmation of a ninth justice of the Supreme Court so they can break this tie.”

For a QuickTake explainer on immigration reform’s many plot twists, click here.

The deadlock may stoke what already is a fiery debate in the presidential campaign over the 11 million people who are in the country illegally. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says he would deport them, temporarily halt immigration by Muslims, and turn back Syrian refugees. He says he would build a wall along the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration in the future.

Trump said in a statement the ruling “makes clear what is at stake in November. The election and the Supreme Court appointments that come with it will decide whether or not we have a border and, hence, a country.”

The 4-4 split also underscores the significance of the partisan battle to fill the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s Feb. 13 death. Should Democrat Hillary Clinton win the presidency, she could adopt Obama’s plan or put her own in place. She also could fill the vacancy on the court that may ultimately decide the policy’s fate.

Deadlock ‘Unacceptable’

Clinton called the court deadlock "unacceptable" and said in a statement that she believed Obama "acted well within his constitutional and legal authority." She added that the decision "is a stark reminder of the harm Donald Trump would do to our families, our communities, and our country."

As is the court’s normal practice, the justices didn’t say which of them were on which side of the case. Arguments in April suggested the possibility of an ideological divide.

Obama acted after Congress hit a stalemate in efforts to pass a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws. Under the program, people whose children are either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, and who meet other requirements, could have gotten relief from deportation for three years. Those individuals, who are primarily from Mexico and Central America, wouldn’t have been given an easier path to citizenship.

The president said the program was simply a broader exercise of his accepted power to set priorities in deciding who should be deported.

Texas and its allies said federal immigration laws set out detailed rules for deportation and don’t give the president authority to shield such a large category of people. Opponents said Obama was offering amnesty for people who broke the law to enter or remain in the country.

“The Supreme Court rightly denied the president the ability to grant amnesty contrary to immigration laws," Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement. “Today’s ruling is also a victory for all law-abiding Americans -- including the millions of immigrants who came to America following the rule of law."

‘Null and Void’

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said the 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."

Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said the 4-4 decision shows the "terrible human cost" of Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider confirming Garland, chief judge of the federal appeals court in Washington.

The court’s action "leaves millions of families across America in legal limbo," Durbin said.

Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia were among those backing the administration in the case.

The case is United States v. Texas, 15-674.

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