Obama's immigration plan faces uncertainty in court test

4 min

Washington (AFP)

President Barack Obama's plan to delay deportation for nearly half of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants was fraught with uncertainty Monday, as US Supreme Court justices signaled deep divisions.

If the eight justices deadlock in their ruling, due by late June, the plan would remain on hold, dealing a bruising defeat to Obama during his last year in office and pushing the issue to the next president.

Hundreds of activists massed outside in blazing sunshine, brandishing heart-shaped signs reading "Keep families together" and chanting "Si se puede" -- putting a Spanish twist on Obama's 2008 campaign slogan "Yes We Can."

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, two conservatives whose opinions are critical in this case, sparred repeatedly with the Obama administration's attorney during an extended 90-minute session of oral arguments.

At stake is a series of executive actions the president took in November 2014 to bypass a Republican-held Congress that refused to enact his promised reform of America's immigration system.

One initiative, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), would shield from deportation people living in the United States since 2010 whose children are US citizens or residents. They would also be able to obtain a work authorization and pay taxes.

Another measure would expand on an existing program that grants a reprieve to immigrants who entered the country as children.

Obama, who has deported more people than any other US president, said he wanted to prioritize deportations of "felons, not families."

The four liberal-leaning justices pointed to similar executive actions by his predecessors.

Critics accuse Obama of overstepping his authority, a view echoed on the conservative wing of the bench.

- 'Upside down' -

"It's as if the president is setting the policy and the Congress is executing it," Kennedy said. "That's just upside down."

Mirroring Obama's gridlock with Congress on immigration is that of a Supreme Court evenly split between liberals and conservatives while Senate Republicans refuse to fill the ninth seat left vacant by the late Antonin Scalia.

One way out of a stalemate would be for the justices to issue a narrow ruling on whether the 26 mostly Republican-led states bringing the challenge would suffer enough injury as a result of Obama's actions to legally sue the federal government.

Roberts, who has insisted the Supreme Court should stand above the political fray, is likely to focus on the issue, which dominated much of the court's morning session.

Texas, for instance, claims it would cost the state millions of dollars in public funds to provide driver's licenses at a subsidized cost to the huge group of immigrants who would be allowed to stay.

If the states lack legal standing, that would be enough to dismiss the case -- allowing the justices to eschew a decision on more fundamental aspects of the immigration debate, an immensely divisive issue at the heart of the White House race.

Justice Stephen Breyer, a liberal, noted that if Texas is allowed to sue the government on immigration, that would open the door for states to challenge "all kinds" of federal regulations with which they disagree.

But Roberts repeatedly challenged Solicitor General Donald Verrilli as he argued on behalf of the administration that Texas had no grounds to sue.

While declining to predict the outcome of the case, White House spokesman Josh Earnest expressed "continued confidence in the power of the legal argument" the government's attorney presented to the court.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid urged Republicans to cooperate to pass immigration reform in Congress for a "permanent solution."

"Our nation would be far better off with a bipartisan, comprehensive overhaul of our nation's immigration laws," he said.

- 'Unprecedented, unlawful' -

Nearly five million people would get relief from deportation under Obama's policy.

Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller called the actions "an unprecedented, unlawful assertion of executive power."

But Verrilli stressed that those who would win a reprieve would be a low priority for deportations anyway.

"There is a pressing humanitarian concern in avoiding the breakup of families that contain US citizen children," he said.

Roshell, a 17-year-old protester who declined to give her last name, said she lives with the fear "every day" that authorities could come deport her and her parents, who brought her to the United States illegally when she was just a toddler.

"We have hope, we are on the right side of justice," said Uruguayan immigrant and activist Victoria Siciliano, while Mexican Mariachi bands played the US national anthem outside the court.

America's huge population of undocumented immigrants is "living in the shadows," said Sonia Sotomayor, the court's first Hispanic justice and the daughter of Puerto Rican-born parents.

"They are here, whether we want them or not."