WASHINGTON (AP) – The Obama administration says it will ask the Supreme Court to save its plans to shield from deportation millions of immigrants living in the country illegally. The appeal advances a legal confrontation with 26 states during a presidential race already roiled by disputes over U.S. immigration policy.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Monday effectively blocked President Barack Obama's plan to protect as many as 5 million immigrants, primarily the immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. It upheld a Texas-based federal judge's earlier injunction.
The ruling leaves in limbo the future of the program, called the Deferred Action for Parents and Americans, and promises by Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton to go further than Obama to protect large groups of immigrants from deportation.
Clinton promised in May to expand Obama's executive actions if Congress does not overhaul U.S. immigration laws. In October she also pledged to be "less harsh and aggressive" than Obama in enforcing immigration laws.
Clinton said Tuesday she hopes the case gets a quick and fair hearing "so that the millions who are affected can stop living in fear of their families being broken apart."
The future of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally has been debated by Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. Earlier this month Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said if elected he would eventually end Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects from deportation immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
DACA, as the program is known, was seen as an administrative answer to the DREAM Act, legislation once supported by Rubio that would provide legal status to those young immigrants. To date, more than 720,000 young immigrants have been granted permission to live and work legally in the United States. That program is not affected by the appeals court ruling.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday the case was ultimately about the administration's authority to decide how to use its limited resources in immigration enforcement.
"We obviously continue to believe strongly in the legal power of the arguments that we have been making for nearly a year ... about the importance of giving our law enforcement officials the discretion to implement our immigration laws in a way that focuses on those who pose a genuine threat to our national security or to our communities," Earnest said.
Monday's 70-page ruling rejected administration arguments that the district court had abused its discretion with a nationwide order and that the states lacked standing to challenge Obama's executive orders.
It acknowledged that an adverse ruling would discourage potential beneficiaries of DAPA from cooperating with law enforcement authorities or paying taxes. "But those are burdens that Congress knowingly created, and it is not our place to second-guess those decisions," U.S. Circuit Judge Jerry Smith wrote for the majority. Smith was appointed to the court by Republican President Ronald Reagan.
In a 53-page dissent, Circuit Judge Carolyn Dineen King said the administration was within the law. She cast the decision to defer action on some deportations as "quintessential exercises of prosecutorial discretion" and noted that the Homeland Security Department has limited resources.
"Although there are approximately 11.3 million removable aliens in this country today, for the last several years Congress has provided the Department of Homeland Security with only enough resources to remove approximately 400,000 of those aliens per year," wrote King, who was appointed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
It's unclear when the Justice Department will file its appeal or whether the high court would take up the case, but the administration may be running out of time to get a final decision before Obama leaves office in early 2017.
While the appeal moves forward, not much will change for the millions of immigrants Obama sought to help without action from Congress.
When Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program last year, they also rolled out a new set of priorities for immigration enforcement that focused on criminals, those who pose a threat to national security or public safety and recent border-crossers.
The result of that renewed focus means the average immigrant whose only offense is living in the country illegally isn't likely to face deportation.
During the last budget year, which ended Sept. 30, administration removed about 231,000 immigrants living in the country illegally, according to internal government documents obtained by The Associated Press.
It was the fewest number of deportations since 2006 and a 42 percent drop since a record high of more than 409,000 in 2012.