A federal appeals court dealt a potentially fatal blow Monday to President Obama’s immigration plan, leaving more than 4 million undocumented immigrants in legal limbo and setting up a possible Supreme Court battle at the sunset of his administration.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld a challenge to the deferred deportation program brought by Texas and 25 other states with Republican governors, who argued that Obama lacked the authority to protect about one-third of the nation’s undocumented immigrants by executive fiat.
The authority that the administration claimed, the court said in a 2-1 ruling, would allow it “to grant lawful presence and work authorization to any illegal alien in the United States.”
The White House said in a statement that it strongly disagreed with the court and that the departments of Justice and Homeland Security will review the ruling to determine the “next steps” in the case.
“The Supreme Court and Congress have made clear that the federal government can set priorities in enforcing our immigration laws,” the statement read. “This lawsuit is preventing people who have been part of our communities for years from working on the books, contributing to our economy by paying taxes on that work, and being held accountable.”
The decision had been anticipated by the administration and immigration rights groups, who have hung their hopes on the Supreme Court rather than the conservative appeals court with jurisdiction over Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. But the four-month wait for a ruling, since oral arguments were held before the three-judge panel, could mean that the justices won’t get the case during their current term — and won’t decide it before Obama leaves office.
Under that scenario, the 4.3 million undocumented immigrants deemed eligible for the program would be at the mercy of the next president — either a Democrat who favors giving them temporary protection from deportation, or a Republican who most likely would have campaigned against it.
That makes the panel’s decision a major blow to Obama, who has hoped to overhaul the nation’s immigration system before leaving office even if Congress won’t go along. And it’s a crushing defeat for millions of immigrant families who hope to win protections that would make them eligible for three-year work permits and a host of health care, disability and retirement benefits.