President Obama met with immigration advocates the White House on Feb. 4. (Evan Vucci/AP)

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A federal judge in Texas last night temporarily blocked the Obama administration’s executive actions on immigration. The judge, responding to a suit filed by 26 Republican-run states, did not rule on the legality of immigration orders but said there was sufficient merit to the challenge to warrant a suspension while the case goes forward.

No law gave the administration the power “to give 4.3 million removable aliens what the Department of Homeland Security itself labels as ‘legal presence,'” the judge said in a memorandum opinion. “In fact the law mandates that these illegally-present individuals be removed.” The Department of Homeland Security “has adopted a new rule that substantially changes both the status and employability of millions.”

The Obama orders would offer a legal reprieve to the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have resided in the country for at least five years. This would remove the constant threat of deportation. Many could also receive work permits.

They would also expand the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allows certain young people who arrived in the United States illegally as children to apply for two-year work permits and exemptions from deportation.

Some 4 million to 5 million undocumented immigrants were said to be potentially eligible to benefit from the executive actions.

President Obama announced new action to delay the deportation of about 4 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Here are some numbers to know about immigration. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

The administration’s directives announced in November have been vigorously challenged by Republicans in Congress and across the country, who cite them as examples of what House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has called Obama’s “legacy of lawlessness.” The administration has defended them as routine exercises of presidential authority, made necessary by Congress’s failure to enact comprehensive revisions to U.S. immigration law. U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen in Brownsville strongly disagreed.

It was a major, if temporary, defeat for the administration, which argued that the case should be thrown out as meritless, “based on rhetoric, not law.”

The immediate impact appeared likely to at least delay the application process, which was to begin Wednesday, for some undocumented immigrants wishing to take advantage of the new policies.

Hanen was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush and has been outspoken against the administration’s immigration policies in other cases recently.

The White House in a statement early Tuesday defended the executive orders issued in November as within the president’s legal authority, saying that the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress have said federal officials can set priorities in enforcing immigration laws.

Attorney General Eric Holder called a Texas judge's decision to suspend Obama's executive action on immigration an "interim step" in a process he believes will go to a higher court. (Reuters)

“The district court’s decision wrongly prevents these lawful, commonsense policies from taking effect and the Department of Justice has indicated that it will appeal that decision,” the statement said.

Said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas: “Today’s ruling reinforces what I and many others have been saying for a long time: that President Obama acted outside the law when he went around Congress to unilaterally change our nation’s immigration laws. Today’s victory is an important one, but the fight to reverse the President’s unconstitutional overreach is not over. The President must respect the rule of law and fully obey the court’s ruling.”

Republicans in Congress have threatened to deny funding to the Department of Homeland Security unless the appropriation includes provisions rolling back the immigration orders — amendments certain to be vetoed by Obama, possibly leading to a partial DHS shutdown.

Specifically, the lawsuit claimed that the president’s orders unilaterally changed federal immigration law, usurping Congress’s exclusive power to legislate, and violated the president’s constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

It also said Obama violated the Administrative Procedure Act by not running his orders through the elaborate process of rulemaking — including 90-day notices and comment periods — instead just ramming them through via directives.

The administration countered that the states would suffer no harm from the executive orders and thus they had no standing to sue. It argued as well that the executive branch has sufficient power over immigration, including “prosecutorial discretion,” to implement the changes just as it did.

Hanen based his temporary injunction on his belief that the administration, in making such a sweeping change to what current law “mandates,” at the very least failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act’s provisions on “notice and comment.” He said the case should go forward rather than be thrown out, as the administration has urged.

He said it was necessary in the meantime to stop implementation in part because failing to do so could prove costly to the states. They would have to deal with suddenly legalized immigrants who, “armed with Social Security cards and employment authorization documents,” would start seeking various government benefits and services. “Once these services are provided, there will be no effective way of putting the toothpaste back in the tube” should the states ultimately prevail on the merits, he said.

The order was made public by Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott (R), who filed the suit on Dec. 3, when he was the state’s attorney general.

“President Obama abdicated his responsibility to uphold the United States Constitution when he attempted to circumvent the laws passed by Congress via executive fiat,” Abbott said in a statement, “and Judge Hanen’s decision rightly stops the President’s overreach in its tracks. We live in a nation governed by a system of checks and balances, and the President’s attempt to by-pass the will of the American people was successfully checked today.”

Reaction from immigrants’ rights groups was swift. “Judge Hanen’s ruling is not permanent and we are confident that it will be repealed in a higher court,” Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, a Washington, D.C.-based immigrant advocacy group, told the Los Angeles Times. “Republican attacks like this lawsuit do not scare us, they just focus our resolve to make these programs even more successful.”

“We are confident that the higher courts will reject this lawsuit since it has no legal merit and only wastes taxpayer dollars,” the group said in a statement.

RELATED: The full memorandum opinion

Jonathan Adler’s post on the order in the Volokh Conspiracy

Your complete guide to Obama’s immigration executive action

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