A FEDERAL appeals court ruled on Tuesday against the Obama administration’s executive order to shield millions of immigrants from deportation. This decision is most immediately a blow to migrants who must continue to live in the shadows. Pundits add that this is a big setback for Barack Obama, as the president now may not see his big immigration plans take effect while he is in office. Republicans may be celebrating, as many have come out against the president’s policies for immigration reform. But for the many GOP candidates who are jockeying for position in the 2016 presidential field, the appeals-court ruling is bad news. Immigration will now be squarely on the agenda.
Candidates running for the White House will now have to spell out just how many millions of long-established migrants they would seek to deport if elected (angering many non-white voters), or how many they would allow to stay (risking conservative cries of “amnesty”). Hillary Clinton is surely smiling, particularly as Hispanic voters could prove pivotal in some swing states in the 2016 elections, from Florida to Nevada.
The legal import of this week’s ruling is relatively slight. The Fifth Circuit of Appeals in New Orleans was not offering a formal opinion on the underlying legality of Mr Obama’s actions. Rather, it merely dismissed a procedural challenge by government lawyers to a ruling in February by a federal judge in Texas, which has halted the president’s immigration agenda like a cartoon spanner thrown into giant cogwheels. The same appeals court will be asked to take a view on the merits of the Texas judge’s reasoning this summer, though in fact the whole question could easily end up in the Supreme Court.
For now, though, by a split 2-1 decision, the Fifth Circuit signalled that its sympathies lie with Texas and 25 other largely Republican states, which sued Mr Obama for what they call a “lawless” attempt to bypass Congress and rewrite immigration law by presidential fiat. The lawsuit by the 26 states involves an executive decision unveiled in November 2014 that protects from deportation an estimated 4m parents of citizens and permanent residents (green-card holders), as well as some 300,000 people who arrived as children and meet specific criteria. The order expanded an earlier policy for granting residence—but not formal legal status—to immigrants who came as children, graduated from high school and have not been convicted of a serious crime. The government had planned to start taking applications this month.
The whole row has a deeply partisan slant to it, which is depressing to anyone who has hopes of seeing America fix its broken immigration system. Comprehensive reform will advance only when broad, bipartisan majorities are on board.
To simplify, but not by much, the 26 states seeking to block Mr Obama take the view that bringing immigrants in from the shadows imposes painful costs on the states where they live. Texas and the others say that they would be forced to spend money issuing driving licences and other services to newly legal residents, and so the president’s scheme goes way beyond an exercise of his executive powers to decide who should and should not be deported. But 15 other, largely Democratic states side with the government, arguing that deportation priorities are an executive prerogative—and that more broadly it is a net boon to the country to let those already here work legally.
Expect all 2016 candidates to be asked where they stand on the president’s executive decisions. Some Republicans may have planned to fudge the question, by thundering about his habit of ignoring the constitution, or by murmuring about pathways to legal status for migrants that meet lots of arduous criteria and wait a long time at the back of a line. But now that many millions of otherwise hard-working law-abiding migrants face deportation in America, it may be the job of the country’s next president to decide their fate.
A special report on America’s Hispanics (March 2015)
A frustrated Barack Obama rewrites America’s immigration rules (November 2014)
America’s deportation machine (February 2014)