In a crushing blow to the White House, the Supreme Court announced Thursday it was evenly divided in a case concerning the President’s controversial executive actions on immigration.
The ruling means that the programs will remain blocked from going into effect, and the issue will return to the lower court. It is exceedingly unlikely the programs will go into effect for the remainder of the Obama presidency.
Obama announced the programs to great fanfare in 2014 as well as to more than 4 million immigrants who were prepared to come out from the shadows to apply for the programs and get temporary work authorization and associated benefits.
The programs were immediately challenged by Texas and 25 other states and blocked nationwide by a federal district court in early 2015.
The one-sentence ruling, issued without comment or dissent, will impact millions of undocumented immigrants seeking to be able to come out of the shadows and apply for these programs to stay in the United States.
Immigration has already been a prominent and highly charged topic of the 2016 election already this year, and this ruling guarantees it will only be more so.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is certain to campaign on it, saying the ruling is evidence not only of why the Supreme Court needs a ninth justice, but also that the delay of Obama’s immigration programs adds importance to putting a Democrat in the White House to continue the fight to put them in place.
“Today’s deadlocked decision from the Supreme Court is unacceptable, and show us all just how high the stakes are in this election,” Clinton said in a statement Thursday morning, who later described the ruling as procedural. “As I have consistently said, I believe that President Obama acted well within his constitutional and legal authority in issuing the DAPA and DACA executive actions.”
The topic of undocumented immigrants has been a central theme this campaign. While Democrats have pushed for immigration reform and leniency to some people living in the country illegally, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has spoken forcefully about deporting the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and disparaged Mexican immigrants during his campaign.
Impact of Scalia’s death
The 4-4 split on the court is also more evidence of the long shadow of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death this February.
“This is a ruling that affects millions of American families, but because the Supreme Court does not have its full complement of nine justices, the court was unable to deliver a definitive ruling a case of such national importance.” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of Constitutional Accountability Center.
“The resolution of the immigration case — or lack thereof — underscores how handicapped the Supreme Court can be when it’s not fully staffed,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN contributor and professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. “Although proponents of President Obama’s immigration plan might prefer this result to a 5-4 loss, which would have set a nationwide precedent, rulings like these create uncertainty for the courts and the country going forward –uncertainty that, at the end of the day, puts more pressure on the political branches and dilutes the role of the Supreme Court.”
Congressional Republicans: ‘Slap down’ to Obama
Texas was supported at the Supreme Court by the GOP-led House of Representatives, who said that the programs went forward after the President failed in his attempts to persuade Congress to revise immigration laws.
“This is a slap down to the President,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, told CNN. “It shows there are limitations on the President’s actions and the only way to resolve this problem is through the Congress.”
“Today, Article I of the Constitution was vindicated,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. “The Supreme Court’s ruling makes the President’s executive action on immigration null and void. The Constitution is clear: The president is not permitted to write laws — only Congress is. This is another major victory in our fight to restore the separation of powers.”
What Obama’s plans do
The White House announced the programs in November 2014, issuing a five-page guidance memo enabling qualifying undocumented workers to receive temporary relief from the threat of deportation and to apply for programs that could qualify them for work authorization and associated benefits.
The Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) targets the nearly 4.3 million undocumented parents of citizens and lawful residents, and the second program expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), initiative aimed at non-citizens who came to the country as children.
“We’ll bring more undocumented immigrants out of the shadows so they can play by the rules, pay their full share of taxes, pass a criminal background check and get right with the law,” Obama told an audience in Nevada after the programs were announced.
The challengers — mostly Republican governors and attorney generals — said the unilateral actions were unconstitutional and they violated a federal law that sets forward how agencies can establish regulations.
In 2015 a federal judge sided with the states and blocked the programs from going forward. A divided federal appeals court later upheld the preliminary injunction.
Obama’s lawyers argued in court papers that the lower court rulings threatened great harm, “not only to the proper role of federal courts and to federal immigration law, but also to millions of parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, aliens who are the lowest priorities for removal yet now work off the books to support their families.”
As a threshold issue, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said that the states didn’t have the legal right to be in court, because the Constitution “assigns the formation of immigration policy exclusively to the National Government precisely because immigration is an inherently national matter.”
He stressed that the guidance from the government does not provide any kind of lawful status under immigration law as the aliens remain removable at any time.
Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller argued that the states had standing to bring the challenge in part because DAPA would create a new class of recipients for state subsidized driver’s licenses in Texas. He says that Texas would stand to lose millions of dollars if even a small fraction of DAPA eligible aliens applied.
“DAPA is an extraordinary assertion of executive power,” Keller wrote in court papers. “The Executive has unilaterally crafted an enormous program — one of the largest changes ever to our Nation’s approach to immigration,” he said. “In doing so, the Executive dispensed with immigration statutes by declaring unlawful conduct to be lawful.”
He pointed to the guidance and said that the eligible undocumented immigrations would be permitted to be “lawfully present in the United States,” which would make them eligible for work authorization and some types of Social Security and Medicare benefits.
This story is breaking and will be updated.
— Tal Kopan and Ted Barrett contributed to this report