By Mike Lillis and Jordan Fabian - 01/19/16 08:27 PM EST
The Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will examine a challenge to President Obama’s actions halting deportations for millions of people in the country illegally, setting the stage for a summer verdict that’s sure to fuel an immigration debate already exploding on the campaign trail.
Every GOP presidential hopeful has vowed to rescind Obama’s programs if they win the White House, while the three Democratic contenders have all promised to keep the initiatives intact — or even expand them if Congress doesn’t move on immigration reform first.
The timing of the case has important political implications for Obama, who is hoping to push forward with a major legacy achievement months before he leaves office.
The announcement also has a stark practical significance: The fates of millions of immigrants in the country illegally who are eligible for the programs have been in limbo while the case moves through the courts.
The dynamics are not unlike those underlying the 2012 elections, when the Supreme Court’s ruling against an Arizona immigration law ignited the debate over deportations and carried into the presidential contest between Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Then and now, the issue remains largely partisan, with Democrats hailing Obama’s programs as a necessary remedy to congressional inaction on immigration reform and Republicans hammering the president with charges that he’s overstepped his executive authority.
Both sides, however, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case, even as they predicted vastly different outcomes.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she’s confident the court “will recognize the legality and necessity” of Obama’s actions, citing the “broad authority” of presidents “to defer removal when it is in the national interest.”
“The fact is that these actions fall well within the president’s broad authority and the clear legal precedent established by every administration — Republican and Democratic — since President Eisenhower,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Republicans disagree, accusing Obama of trying to sidestep Congress to legislate from the White House.
“With his actions, President Obama has attempted to bypass the constitutionally ordained legislative process and rewrite the law unilaterally,” Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchThe holy grail of tax policy GOP lawmakers ask IRS to explain M wasted on unusable email system GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election MORE (R-Utah), former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
At issue are a pair of executive actions launched by Obama shortly after the midterm elections of 2014.
One, known as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), would halt deportations and offer work permits to the parents of U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents. The other would expand Obama’s 2012 program, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, that provides the same protections to some high-achieving illegal immigrants brought to the country before age 16. The expanded program would extend DACA eligibility to many more people.
All told, the programs could defer deportation for as many as 5 million illegal immigrants.
Texas and 25 other states quickly challenged the legality of the unilateral actions, arguing that they constitute a case of executive overreach that would saddle their budgets with exorbitant new costs, particularly in issuing driver’s licenses.
Last February, U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen, of Brownsville, Texas, found that the states had a legitimate basis to bring their case, blocking the programs from taking effect. The decision was largely based on his ruling that the administration violated federal law requiring a public comment period when new rules are established.
In November, the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled 2-1 in favor of Hanen’s injunction, ensuring the programs would remain idle and setting the stage for the Supreme Court to consider the case.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in the legal arguments that we’ll be making before the court,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.
The immigration issue has been no easy ride for Obama. Although a vocal proponent of comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship, he’s also taken plenty of heat from his base for what many liberals deem a lackluster effort to act in the absence of congressional action.
Complicating his fight, Obama for years had pushed back against liberal attacks by insisting that a sweeping halt to deportations was outside his power.
“I am president, I am not king. I can’t do these things just by myself,” Obama said in a 2010 interview with Univision.
Republicans have cited such comments as evidence that even the president doesn’t believe he has the authority to make changes of the sort he’s now trying to adopt.
“The court should affirm what President Obama said himself on more than 20 occasions: that he cannot universally rewrite congressional laws and circumvent the people’s representatives,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is leading the 26 states that brought the lawsuit, said Tuesday in a statement.
The immigration issue has been a tough one for Republicans as well.
On one hand, GOP leaders are trying to appeal to Hispanic voters, a fast-growing group that could be vital in a number of battleground states, including Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia. Obama won roughly 70 percent of those voters in both 2008 and 2012, and the Republicans don’t want 2016 to continue the trend.
On the other, Republicans want to be seen as promoting the tough-enforcement position favored by their conservative base. That platform has helped both Donald TrumpDonald TrumpConway says she'll talk to Trump about press safety Helen Mirren gives advice for being a ‘nasty woman’ Gingrich goes off on Megyn Kelly over Trump allegations: 'You are fascinated with sex' MORE and Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThe Trail 2016: An important lesson in geography Webb: The race to 270 Potential Cruz challenger: 'Don't close off your options' MORE (R-Texas) propel themselves to the front of the GOP primary race.
In taking the case, the Supreme Court must decide whether states have the legal right to sue the government to begin with. They’re pointing to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that held states had a right to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over emissions regulations the agency declined to adopt — a case cited by the 5th Circuit in its November ruling.
The court will also weigh whether the Obama administration violated federal law by adopting new policies without allowing a period for the public to weigh in, as required by the Administrative Procedures Act when the executive crafts new rules.
The court also announced it would consider another question that was not addressed by the lower courts: whether Obama acted within what’s called the Take Care Clause of the Constitution, which requires the president to ensure “that the laws be faithfully executed.”
That addition installs an extra hurdle the administration must hop to put its programs into effect. But immigrant rights advocates were quick to welcome the additional review, saying it would relieve the uncertainty facing millions of undocumented immigrants eligible for the programs while eliminating the need to re-litigate the initiatives if opponents filed another suit invoking the clause.
“It’s a good sign that the court is taking all of these issues [indicating] that it wants to resolve the case once and for all,” said Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center.
Advocates point to the 2012 Arizona case, which challenged Arizona’s law empowering local law enforcers to arrest people based on suspicions that they were in the country illegally, as the precedent they’re hoping the court will adopt four years later.
Writing for the majority in that case, Justice Anthony Kennedy found that the federal government has “significant” and “broad” powers to regulate immigration law.
“Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration,” he wrote, “but the State may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”
Surprising many court observers, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the majority.
Still, the advocates, while confident they’ll win, declined to handicap individual votes.
“It’s an impossible business to try to predict how the justices are going to rule,” Wydra said.
Updated at 8:27 p.m.