The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama defends immigration plan, decries Supreme Court outcome as advocates focus on 2016 campaign

President Obama blamed Republican inaction on his Supreme Court nominee for the court's deadlock over immigration reform June 23. (Video: Reuters)

A frustrated President Obama on Thursday decried the Supreme Court's decision not to lift an injunction against his signature immigration program and blamed Republicans for standing in the way of progress, as he and other Democrats vowed to turn immigration into an election litmus test.

"Here's the bottom line: We've got a very real choice that America faces right now," Obama said during a hastily arranged appearance in the White House briefing room. "We've got a choice about who we're going to be as a country, what we want to teach our kids, and how we want to be represented in Congress and in the White House."

The high court's 4-4 deadlock in U.S. v. Texas meant that a lower court's injunction against Obama's deferred action program, designed to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, remains in place and that the initiative is unlikely to be permitted to go forward before he leaves office.

Supreme Court won’t revive Obama plan to shield illegal immigrants from deportation

That outcome represented a major blow to Obama, who announced plans for the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program in November 2014 shortly after Republicans won control of the Senate during the midterm elections. The president said he was using executive action to reform the immigration system because the GOP-controlled House had blocked a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

But Republicans have denounced the president for circumventing the will of lawmakers and accused him of abusing his authority.

"Today, the Supreme Court made the right call," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement. "When Congress doesn’t give the President what he wants, the President doesn’t all [of] the sudden gain the right to legislate all by himself."

Obama defended his deferred action program, emphasizing that a smaller-scale version begun in 2012 to grant work permits to immigrants brought to the country illegally as children will continue. He lambasted the GOP for not granting a confirmation hearing to Merrick Garland, his nominee to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat, and he accused Republicans of using the immigration issue to "scare people" by using "words like 'amnesty' to whip up votes."

"Leaving a broken system that way is not a solution," Obama said. "That's the real amnesty."

Enforcement of the Obama adminstration's 2014 deferred-action policy remains blocked by a nationwide injunction. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has pledged to deport all of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the southern U.S. border. Obama did not mention Trump by name but said those plans amounted to "a fantasy."

And, he added, "it demeans our tradition of being both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. Immigration is not something to fear. Nor do we have to wall ourselves off from those who may not look like us."

On the campaign trail, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who has supported the president's immigration actions, wrote messages on Twitter in both English and Spanish calling the ruling "heartbreaking" because it "could tear apart 5 million families."

In a statement, Clinton said that the outcome is a "stark reminder of the harm Donald Trump would do to our families, our communities, and our country."

Trump said the court's ruling "blocked one of the most unconstitutional actions ever undertaken by a President," and he criticized Clinton for her pledge to expand Obama's executive actions.

Texas and 25 other states sued the Obama administration over the DAPA program, arguing that the administration changed federal regulations without proper notice and that the new immigration guidelines resulted in additional costs for states in the form of driver's licenses for immigrants who qualified for the federal work permits under the program.

A federal judge in Texas put the Obama administration's program on hold in February 2015, a day before it was set to begin, barring the administration from enrolling immigrants until he rules on the lawsuit from the 26 states. A federal appeals court in New Orleans upheld the injunction, propelling the case to the Supreme Court.

Congressional Democrats and immigration advocates echoed Obama's frustration and vowed to use the legal setback to motivate Latinos and other immigrant groups to vote in November. In 2012, Obama won reelection over Republican Mitt Romney with support from more than 70 percent of Latinos and Asian Americans.