Signature Element Of Legacy Thwarted
[But the successful legal assault on Mr. Obama’s actions may also yield some political benefits for Mrs. Clinton and Democrats by helping to motivate and energize Hispanic voters who are angry with the court’s decision. Activists have promised to punish Donald J. Trump and other Republicans who opposed the president’s actions by registering more Hispanic voters and getting them to vote. Mr. Trump’s rhetorical assault on immigrants, especially Mexicans, is also likely to help energize Hispanic activists on behalf of Mrs. Clinton and other Democratic candidates.]
By Michael D. Shear
President Obama speaking about the Supreme Court’s decisions on Thursday.
Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The assertion of presidential power was remarkable in scale. With the flick of a pen just before Thanksgiving in 2014, President Obama ordered that nearly five million illegal immigrants be allowed to “come out of the shadows” and work legally in the United States.
Standing at the same lectern where he had announced the death of Osama bin Laden three years earlier, Mr. Obama insisted in a speech to the nation that his plan for immigrants was a fully legal response to a Republican-controlled Congress that had refused his plea for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
But on Thursday, the Supreme Court disagreed. In a 4-to-4 decision, the justices let stand a lower court ruling that Mr. Obama had overstepped his authority. The decision freezes the president’s actions for the balance of his term, leaving the future of the program — and millions of undocumented workers — in limbo.
Mr. Obama campaigned vowing to win passage of comprehensive immigration legislation in his first year in office, but the Supreme Court defeat will force him to finish his term without securing the major progress he had promised to millions of Latino immigrants living under the threat of deportation.
Instead, one of the president’s chief immigration legacies will be the years of increased enforcement he ordered at the border with Mexico and in immigrant communities, hoping it would lead to a compromise with Republicans. The aggressive actions of immigration agents and local law enforcement, especially during Mr. Obama’s first term, angered many family members separated by raids and deportations.
Mr. Obama did earn praise from Hispanics for taking action in 2012 to help the so-called Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States as small children. Under the president’s program, more than 730,000 of them received documents allowing them to work legally without constant fear that they might be sent home.
Hillary Clinton, who embraced the president’s executive action programs, has said she would expand them. The court’s actions could complicate her ability to do that if she is elected president in the fall.
But the successful legal assault on Mr. Obama’s actions may also yield some political benefits for Mrs. Clinton and Democrats by helping to motivate and energize Hispanic voters who are angry with the court’s decision. Activists have promised to punish Donald J. Trump and other Republicans who opposed the president’s actions by registering more Hispanic voters and getting them to vote. Mr. Trump’s rhetorical assault on immigrants, especially Mexicans, is also likely to help energize Hispanic activists on behalf of Mrs. Clinton and other Democratic candidates.
The court’s action comes after nearly eight years of largely futile attempts by the president to make good on his promise.
Mr. Obama’s 2014 executive actions came after years of fighting to get Congress to act. In 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration overhaul that the White House said the president could support. But House Republicans blocked any consideration of the legislation, accusing the Senate and Mr. Obama of supporting amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States.
For most of his presidency, even Mr. Obama said he did not have the power to act unilaterally. He repeatedly told Hispanic activists that he could not use the “Dreamers” program as a model to expand similar protections to a much larger pool of illegal immigrants.
“If we start broadening that, then essentially I’ll be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally,” Mr. Obama told Jose Diaz-Balart in an interview in September 2013, after it was clear that House Republicans were blocking the Senate’s immigration measure. “So that’s not an option.”
Responding a month later to hecklers urging him to take action, Mr. Obama snapped back, “The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws.”
But the pressure from Hispanic activists only grew more intense. (The head of the nation’s largest Latino advocacy organization once called Mr. Obama the “deporter in chief.”) By the summer of 2014, the president had ordered Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, to lead a team of lawyers in reassessing how much power Mr. Obama had to act.
In remarks at the White House on Nov. 20, 2014, the president made it clear that he had reversed himself.
“The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican president and every single Democratic president for the past half-century,” Mr. Obama said. He added, “There are actions I have the legal authority to take as president, the same kinds of actions taken by Democratic and Republican presidents before me, that will help make our immigration system more fair and more just.”
White House officials at the time told reporters that they thought the legal case was rock-solid. In a briefing the day that Mr. Obama made his announcement, administration officials dismissed talk of a legal challenge by Republicans, arguing that Texas did not have standing to sue.
As it turned out, that proved too optimistic. A judge in Texas and a federal appeals court in New Orleans agreed that the Texas and 25 other states had standing to sue the government because the president’s actions could potentially be very expensive for those states.
The Supreme Court, in its ruling, deadlocked on the case, leaving intact — at least for now — the victories by the states in the lower courts.