The bitter fight over President Obama’s immigration policies moved quickly from the courtroom to the campaign trail on Thursday, as the White House and its allies sought to turn a legal setback at the Supreme Court to their political advantage ahead of the November elections.
Obama decried the high court’s failure to lift an injunction blocking his use of executive authority to provide work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants, and suggested that the unresolved questions about how to move forward on immigration presented voters with a referendum on the future of the country.
“Here’s the bottom line: We’ve got a very real choice that America faces right now,” Obama said, speaking to reporters 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.”
Obama said he remained confident that most Americans share his vision of a welcoming and tolerant America even as Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has promised to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants and build a wall on the southern U.S. border to keep them out.
The court’s 4-4 deadlock in U.S. v. Texas meant that Obama’s signature immigration initiative, announced in November 2014, is unlikely to be implemented before he leaves office, denying him a important victory in an area he hoped to leave a significant legacy. The president has tried in recent years to scale back deportations, which reached record highs during his first term, in response to fierce pressure from advocacy groups and congressional Democrats.
Yet even as Obama acknowledged that he had reached the end of his efforts to overhaul border control laws, he and other Democrats, including the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, saw an opportunity to gain some advantage in the political fight over immigration reform that has roiled the 2016 campaign.
Immigration reform has animated Republican primary voters, who have expressed concerns that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from U.S. citizens, and Trump has made restricting immigration the centerpiece of his campaign. But the politics will be far trickier for GOP candidates, including Trump, in the general election.
In 2012, Obama won reelection with the support of more than 70 percent of Latinos and Asian Americans, two of the nation’s fastest-growing voting blocs whose electoral power is expected to play an even bigger role this fall. Democrats are targeting those groups in their bid to not just to hold onto the White House but also to win back control of at least one chamber of Congress.
Clinton, who has said she would seek to expand Obama’s executive actions on immigration, called the Supreme Court’s outcome “a stark reminder of the harm Donald Trump would do to our families, our communities and our country.”
In a statement, issued in both English and Spanish, Clinton referred to Trump’s characterization last year of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “murderers,” and she pledged to introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill within her first 100 days in office.
“I believe we are stronger together. When we embrace immigrants, not denigrate them. When we build bridges, not walls,” Clinton said.
Republicans hailed the high court’s rebuke of Obama, arguing that the immigration program was a flagrant violation of the will of Congress and the public. Obama announced the program after the GOP-controlled House blocked a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants.
The courts have halted “one of the most unconstitutional actions ever undertaken by a President,” Trump said in a statement. “The executive amnesty from President Obama wiped away the immigration rules written by Congress, giving work permits and entitlement benefits to people illegally in the country.”
Under Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, the parents of U.S. citizens who have lived in the United States at least five years would be eligible for work permits provided they have not committed felonies and do not have ties to terrorist groups.
The program was modeled after a smaller-scale initiative launched in 2012 for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Obama unveiled the expanded version just days after Republicans won control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections.
Texas and 25 other states responded by suing the administration, arguing that the states incurred unnecessary costs for drivers’ licenses for immigrants who qualified for work permits. A federal judge in Texas put the program on hold a day before it was to begin in February 2015, and a federal appeals court in New Orleans affirmed the lower court’s ruling last fall.
In his remarks at the White House, Obama reassured immigrant rights groups that his administration would continue to focus its deportation efforts on violent criminals, and he emphasized that the 2012 deferred action program, which already has provided work permits to more than 700,000 people, remains unaffected by the court litigation.
As he did last week after the mass shooting in Orlando, Obama cautioned that inflammatory rhetoric over immigrants threatened to undermine the nation’s democratic values. Without mentioning Trump by name, the president dismissed his proposals to deport all illegal immigrants and build a wall on the border as a “fantasy,” and he accused Republicans of trying to “scare people with words like ‘amnesty’ in hopes that it will whip up votes.”
“It is my firm belief that immigration is not something to fear,” Obama said. “We don’t have to wall ourselves off from those who may not look like us right now, or pray like we do, or have a different last name.”
Mark Krikorian, the executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels, said he was pleased the Supreme Court did not lift the injunction. But Krikorian acknowledged that the outcome is likely to motivate some voters to turn out at the polls to support Democratic candidates — just as a lifting of the injunction would have spurred a backlash from those opposed to Obama’s actions.
“The election now determines whether the next president either repeals this [executive action] decree or appoints the fifth Justice” to break the court’s deadlock, Krikorian said.
Clarissa Martinez de Castro, deputy vice president for the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest immigrant rights group, noted that Obama’s campaign in 2012 got a boost after he announced the smaller-scale deferred action program a few months before the election.
The Supreme Court outcome, she added, “could have a similar energizing effect.”