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Supreme Court deadlock keeps Obama immigration plan on hold

Immigration activists rallied in Miami earlier this year ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court hearing arguments on President Obama's executive actions on immigration.

The Obama administration's plan to temporarily grant legal status to immigrants living in the country illegally who are parents of U.S. citizens will remain on hold after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 4-4 ruling on the policy Thursday.

The plan also would have expanded a program covering people who arrived as minors, eliminating the existing age-30 cutoff for eligibility and allowing older immigrants to work and live in the U.S. legally for three years. That will also not move forward for now. 

More than 4 million immigrants nationwide could have qualified for the temporary relief from deportation.

At issue in the United States v. Texas case were two executive orders issued by President Obama in 2014 — the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, known as DAPA, and an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA.

Obama’s executive actions were set to take effect in February 2015. But the plans were halted when the state of Texas filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Obama’s orders. Twenty-five other states joined the suit.

The case wound up in the Fifth District Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 last November in favor of Texas and other states. The administration then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the immigration policies.

The high court's decision effectively sends the case back to a Brownsville, Texas, court where a judge will hold a hearing on its merits.

By maintaining an existing preliminary injunction on Obama's executive actions, the justices signaled that the administration cannot move forward with the policies that would temporarily benefit unauthorized immigrants.

“Going forward, the U.S. has a couple of options. It could just say we are going to live with this preliminary injunction and wait this out, or it could proceed to have discovery and a trial,” said John Eastman, a professor who teaches constitutional law at Chapman University.

Eastman, who disagreed with the Obama plan from the beginning, said the president “can’t wholesale change the terms of the law.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the high court ruling in a statement Thursday.

“Today’s decision keeps in place what we have maintained from the very start: one person, even a president, cannot unilaterally change the law," Paxton wrote. "This is a major setback to President Obama’s attempts to expand executive power, and a victory for those who believe in the separation of powers and the rule of law.”

The decision affects immigrants like Isabel Medina, an East Los Angeles mother of three who has lived and worked in California for 20 years. Two of her children were born in this country.

The family's two U.S.-born children would have made Medina and her husband eligible for the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program, had it been upheld.

Before the court’s decision was announced, Medina had high hopes. She said she and her husband had saved grocery bags full of utility bills, receipts, school records – all to show they have lived in the United States continuously since Jan. 1, 2010, as the Obama administration’s plan dictated.

The family's plans are now on hold.

"This means that we have to continue to be in the shadows," Medina said by phone. "We have to face every single day the fear of being deported."

The family's eldest son, who arrived in the U.S. as a baby, has temporary legal status through what’s known as DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The program provides protection from deportation and work permits for migrants who arrived before age 16. That program is not affected by the high court's Thursday ruling.

If their application had been approved, Medina and her husband could have also gotten protection from deportation as well as work permits for three years, renewable so long as the policy is in place.

Medina said what could have benefitted her family most is obtaining work permits.

She earned an associate’s degree in science from a local community college a couple of years ago to get a better job. Medina got work in a medical office, but said she can't get beyond earning a minimum wage. Her husband earns little as well in his job at a vegetable-packing plant. 

“We came to this country full of dreams, thinking we were going to work hard and give our family what we didn’t have,” Medina said. “But that’s where it stayed. The years came and went, and we were always in the same place. What we earned with both of us working was just enough to pay the rent, a babysitter and the bills.”

She said they would like to earn enough to buy a home, perhaps, and move out of the small rented cottage they share with their two youngest sons, 8 and 9.

Medina and others who qualify for DAPA could have earned more with work permits, but there’s no guarantee of higher wages. According to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California, obtaining legal status does not automatically mean a wage boost for low-skilled workers.

Those most likely to benefit economically from a change in status are higher-skilled workers or those who have an educational or language advantage. These include young, U.S.-raised immigrants who have qualified for DACA.

University of California, Irvine, student Bo Daraphant was hoping he would be one of those.

A junior majoring in  international studies, Daraphant now 20 arrived in the U.S. at age 13 from Thailand. However, he arrived after the initial 2007 eligibility date set when DACA was first introduced in 2012. The DACA expansion Obama had pushed for would have let people who arrived before January 2010 to also apply.

“Right now, there is nothing to look forward to, sad as it seems,” Daraphant said. "I can go back to school, but still I can’t work.”

Daraphant does benefit from a California law that allows him to pay lower, in-state tuition. It’s one of several California policies that benefit unauthorized immigrants, including the ability to obtain a driver’s license and apply for college financial aid.

Opponents of the Obama plan said the president overstepped his authority and would have allowed him to sidestep Congress in making law. If his actions were allowed to stand, "The genie would be impossible to put back into the bottle," said one federal district judge.

The high court’s decision would not have changed the law and Obama’s policy would not have provided a path to U.S. citizenship. Moreover, the policy could be changed or eliminated by the next administration.

“That is the challenge that extended DACA and DAPA presently,” said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at University of California, Irvine. “They are by design short-term policies ... so the unauthorized community continues to remain under a great deal of pressure and stress, even with short-term protection.”

This story has been updated.