Obama's Immigration Problem Will Become Someone Else's

Paging Congress.

Photographer: Allison Shelley/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s one-sentence decision today on President Barack Obama’s immigration policy resolves nothing. That’s unfortunate -- usually (though not always) the court is a little more helpful -- but it’s also oddly appropriate: This is a political problem, not a legal one.

The case itself resulted from a cascade of political failures. The House failed to follow the Senate’s lead and pass comprehensive immigration reform, which would have resolved the status of millions of long-resident undocumented immigrants among other goals. Obama failed to work with Republicans after the 2014 elections and instead responded with aggressive executive actions to achieve, temporarily, what Congress had not -- shielding some 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and making them eligible for work permits.

Conservative political leaders then sought out a sympathetic federal judge in Texas to block implementation of the executive actions. And by the time the case reached the Supreme Court, the bench was missing a deciding vote due to Senate Republicans’ refusal to hold hearings and a vote on Obama’s nominee to the court. Today’s 4-4 ruling leaves the lower-court decision intact, which means Obama’s policy cannot go forward.

However legally justified Obama’s executive actions were, they were politically fraught. A president’s unilateral action, based on the executive’s discretion in enforcing immigration laws, is a poor substitute for congressionally approved legislation.

Obama today lamented the “perpetual cloud” that the court’s ruling leaves over millions of heads. That’s true enough -- but even if the court had ruled in the administration’s favor, the forecast would remain cloudy: Absent congressional action, a future president could change Obama’s policy.

And it’s unclear how long the cloud will remain. The lower court ruling, left undisturbed by the Supreme Court, extends an injunction against Obama’s executive actions nationwide. That, in particular, seems eminently challengeable. While Texas and other states opposed the executive actions, many states -- including California and New York -- supported them, citing economic benefits while the plaintiffs complained of economic harms.

Obama made no indication that such a legal challenge is forthcoming. Even if successful, it would add another layer of confusion as states operated under different policies. Instead, he looked to this year’s election to help resolve the issue. “Sooner or later,” Obama said, “immigration reform will get done.” Yes, and it will get done under a different president -- and, more to the point, a different Congress.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.