Gov. Greg Abbott hailed a federal judge’s decision to halt President Obama’s executive action on immigration — a decision that gave the state of Texas an initial victory in its battle against what state leaders call federal overreach.
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Tuesday he disagrees with a Texas judge’s ruling that he exceeded his authority with his immigration actions last year and that his administration will appeal.
« The law is on our side and history is on our side, » Obama told reporters in the Oval Office, saying his actions to defer deportations for potentially millions of migrants will improve a broken immigration system.
Until an appeal is decided, however, the administration is suspending its plans to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said. « In the meantime, we recognize we must comply with » the ruling, he said.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen’s decision late Monday blocked implementation of Obama’s policy that would have granted legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, allowing them to get driver’s licenses, work permits and other government benefits.
Hanen’s ruling late Monday came just as one of those executive actions was set to take effect Wednesday. That’s when an estimated 300,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before age 16 — and who have lived in the United States since 2010 — were eligible to apply for legal status. Another 4 million or more who came to the United States as adults would become eligible in May.
Hanen issued a preliminary injunction blocking those programs, which were part of a series of executive actions on immigration Obama announced last November.
Other parts of those executive actions are not affected by the ruling. The 2012 program to legalize immigrants who arrived in childhood will continue, and Homeland Security will still defer the deportation of undocumented immigrants considered a low priority by the administration. A visa modernization initiative will continue.
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In a 123-page opinion, Hanen ruled that the Department of Homeland Security took an illegal shortcut by failing to allow public comment on the new policies. Despite the public perception that Obama made the policy change through executive order, Hanen said, responsibility actually falls to Johnson — and he has to follow the notice-and-comment rulemaking process in the Administrative Procedure Act.
The White House immediately said that the Justice Department would file an appeal, which would go to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
« The Supreme Court and Congress have made clear that the federal government can set priorities in enforcing our immigration laws — which is exactly what the President did when he announced commonsense policies to help fix our broken immigration system, » White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a middle-of-the-night statement.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department is examining the opinion to determine the best way to proceed.
« I think that we have to look at this decision for what it is. It is the — a decision by one federal district court judge, » Holder said at the National Press Club on Tuesday. « I have always expected that this is a matter that will be ultimately decided by a higher court — if not the Supreme Court, then a federal court of appeals. »
The judge’s ruling did not address the merits of the immigration policy or Obama’s right to change how immigration laws are enforced without congressional action. Rather, it preserves the current system while both sides in the lawsuit argue the case.
« Despite the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the judge’s 123-page opinion, the temporary injunction itself is narrow, » said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell University law professor. He said the administration is likely to prevail on the merits because federal courts have often given the president broad authority to shape the enforcement and implementation of immigration laws.
The state of Texas filed suit in December on behalf of Texas and 26 other states opposed to the Obama’s executive action.
« We live in a nation governed by a system of checks and balances, and the President’s attempt to by-pass the will of the American people was successfully checked today, » said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in a statement. He filed the lawsuit when he was state attorney general.
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Abbott said Obama has « abdicated his responsibility … when he attempted to circumvent the laws passed by Congress via executive fiat, and Judge Hanen’s decision rightly stops the president’s overreach in its tracks. »
Abbott and 25 other state attorneys general argue that Obama’s immigration actions violated the « take care » clause of the Constitution, which states that « he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed. »
Texas has standing to bring the lawsuit, the judge ruled, because the federal action would make thousands of newly legalized immigrants eligible for Texas driver’s licenses. The state charges $24 per license, but they cost nearly $200 for the state to process — in part because of federal mandates under the REAL ID Act of 2005.
« If the preliminary injunction is denied, plaintiffs will bear the costs of issuing licenses and other benefits once DAPA beneficiaries — armed with Social Security cards and employment authorization documents — seek those benefits, » Hanen wrote. « Once these services are provided, there will be no effective way of putting the toothpaste back in the tube should plaintiffs ultimately prevail on the merits. »
The injunction applies to a program known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA. The program allowed undocumented parents of lawful U.S. citizens or permanent residents to defer deportation and seek job benefits.
The judge made clear that his ruling does not apply to the original Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which has granted legal status to the almost 700,000 teenagers and young adults born outside the United States since 2012.
Hanen, a district judge sitting in Brownsville, Texas, was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2002.
« The plaintiffs were very careful in where they brought this action, to a district court judge on the border, » said Laura Foote Reiff, an immigration lawyer at Greenberg Traurig. She’s also the chairwoman of the National Immigration Forum, which has advised the White House on immigration policy. « I think the standing issue is a huge one. And the states that brought this case were very clever. »
Unless it’s overturned on appeal, the ruling could delay implementation of the executive actions by at least six to 12 months, Reiff said. That’s the amount of time it would take to allow public comment on the policy — which could still be struck down by the court in a final ruling.
But immigrant rights groups noted that the ruling was temporary and urged undocumented immigrants to prepare to apply to the president’s program.
« Our communities need to be ready to benefit from this, » said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, which filed a legal brief supporting the president’s plan. She called the court challenge a « political lawsuit » aimed at causing confusion and fear among eligible immigrants.
The ruling comes as Congress debates how to extend funding authority for the Department of Homeland Security. House Republicans have passed a bill that funds the department through September but blocks funding to enforce any of Obama’s executive actions. Senate Democrats have threatened a filibuster, and the White House has threatened a veto.
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« It’s perfectly appropriate to take this issue to court, but it is completely unacceptable for Republicans to hold up funding for the Department of Homeland Security while the case wends its way through the legal system, » said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in a statement.
Some analysts say the court ruling could give Republicans a way out of the current impasse over Homeland Security funding by handing them a big win that allows them to drop their insistence on defunding Obama’s immigration actions in the spending bill.
« Some Republicans might see this as an opportunity to declare victory and pull out, » said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. « Others, however, will see it as an opportunity to declare war and press ahead harder than ever. The question is which sentiment will prevail in Republican ranks. »
But former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a prospective GOP candidate to succeed Obama, said in a Facebook post that Obama « overstepped his executive authority and, in turn, hurt the effort toward a commonsense immigration solution. » He said the ruling should bring Obama and Congress back to the table to work out an immigration reform bill.
During his comments in the Oval Office, Obama said he acted on immigration last year because Congress did not.
While he would like to see the current Congress pass a major immigration bill, Obama said that so far the GOP majority has only talked about trying to « kick out » more people, or « de-fund the department of homeland security. »
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The 25 states joining Texas in the lawsuit are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Contributing: Alan Gomez in Miami, Erin Kelly in Washington and Melanie Eversley in McLean, Va. Follow @gregorykorte on Twitter.
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