A federal appeals court on Monday ruled against President Obama’s plan to shield up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, dealing another blow to the administration’s effort to remake immigration laws and likely setting up a final battle in the Supreme Court next year.
The 2-to-1 ruling from a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans — to uphold a lower court’s injunction that blocks the administration from implementing a deferred-action program — was not unexpected. It came several months after the same court had denied an emergency stay request from the Justice Department.
The decision means that one of Obama’s signature immigration initiatives remains on hold nearly a year after he announced it through executive action and leaves in doubt whether the program will begin before his term expires in January 2017. Republican presidential candidates have pledged to dismantle the program, creating additional urgency within the Obama administration to get it started.
“The president must follow the rule of law, just like everybody else,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement Monday. Texas led a coalition of 26 states that brought the lawsuit. “Throughout this process, the Obama Administration has aggressively disregarded the constitutional limits on executive power.”
Immigration advocates, who feared time was running out to get the case before the high court next year, called on the administration to appeal quickly and maintained confidence that the Supreme Court would issue a favorable ruling by next June.
“Every single day that goes by means further delays,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, who has closely followed the case. “Once the green light is given [by the Supreme Court], it will make it that much more difficult for any administration, Republican or Democrat, to undo the program.”
A White House official said the administration strongly disagreed with the court decision and was reviewing its legal options.
“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,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
There are an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally. After House Republicans blocked a comprehensive immigration bill last year, Obama announced plans to use executive action to dramatically expand a 2012 program that deferred the deportations of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who entered the United States illegally as children. Under the new program, the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens would be eligible to remain and apply for three-year work permits, provided they had not committed other crimes and lived in the country at least five years.
But 26 states, most with Republican governors, sued to block the program, arguing they would incur fees associated with the issuance of driver’s licenses to the immigrants and asserting the Obama administration had failed to abide by federal rulemaking requirements. In February, a U.S. District Court judge in Brownsville, Tex., ruled that the program could not get underway as he continued to review whether the program was constitutional, stopping it just days before the Department of Homeland Security was to begin accepting applications.
The 5th Circuit panel that ruled Monday included two judges — Jerry Smith and Jennifer Elrod, both appointed by Republican presidents — who had ruled against the administration’s stay request in May and maintained their stances. A third judge, Carolyn Dineen King, appointed by President Jimmy Carter, was not on the earlier panel, and she dissented Monday, ruling in favor of the Obama administration.
In a 135-page decision, Smith wrote that District Judge Andrew Hanen’s decision in February to issue an injunction on Obama’s program was “impressive and thorough.” The appeals court dismissed the administration’s argument that Texas lacked legal standing to challenge a federal immigration program.
“Today’s ruling is a slap in the face to the good people in America who have also been waiting for Congress and the courts to act with justice, humanity and common sense on the issue of immigration reform,” said Angelica Salas, executive director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.