Federal court deals setback to Obama immigration programs

A federal appeals court on Monday dealt another setback to President Obama's effort to enact executive actions that would shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. 

In a split decision, a three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's injunction blocking the programs from taking effect. 

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The majority sided with Texas and 25 other states that sued the administration, ruling they are likely to succeed on the merits of the case. 

"We affirm the preliminary injunction because the states have standing; they have established a substantial likelihood of success on the merits," Judge Jerry Smith wrote. 

The ruling is a defeat for the Obama administration, which has fought unsuccessfully since January to lift legal holds on the programs. 

But the timing of the decision could allow the Supreme Court the chance to take up the case. A favorable high court decision is seen as the last hope for the programs to take effect before Obama leaves office. 

"We strongly disagree with the Fifth Circuit’s decision," a White House official said. "The Supreme Court and Congress have made clear that the federal government can set priorities in enforcing our immigration laws." 

While the administration is expected to pursue an appeal, the official said the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security "are reviewing the court’s decision as they consider the appropriate next steps for moving forward."

Immigrant rights advocates had become increasingly restless about the length of time it took for the Fifth Circuit decide on the injunction. 

The judges took almost four months after hearing oral arguments to make a ruling, and activists worried the Supreme Court would not have time to consider the case if the panel waited much longer. 

The timing of the decision, however, comes as the Supreme Court is still deciding which cases to take up in this term. 

If the justices decide to take up the case, and they lift the injunction as activists hope, that would allow the Obama administration to begin putting the programs into place. 

A ruling could come as late as next June if the lawsuit goes before the high court.

"Today’s ruling is not a surprise but is still a disappointment," Mi Familia Vota Executive Director Ben Monterroso said in a statement. "We have understood from the beginning of this politically driven lawsuit that the case would likely go to the U.S. Supreme Court. We urge the U.S. Department of Justice to waste no time in filing an appeal to the Supreme Court."

After an immigration reform bill died in Congress, Obama last November announced up to 5 million illegal immigrants would be eligible for deportation reprieves and work permits if they met certain conditions. The program would apply to parents of U.S. citizen children and legal residents. 

Obama also expanded the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants relief to young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Republicans slammed the initiatives as a prime example of executive overreach and a group of GOP-run states, led by Texas, sued to block them in federal court. 

“Today, the Fifth Circuit asserted that the separation of powers remains the law of the land, and the president must follow the rule of law, just like everybody else,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement. 

Judge Jerry Smith, who wrote the decision, and Judge Jennifer Elrod are GOP appointees. Smith was appointed by Ronald Reagan and Elrod by George W. Bush. Judge Carolyn King, who dissented, was appointed by the Democrat Jimmy Carter. The Fifth Circuit is widely known as a conservative circuit. Ten of its 15 active judges are Republican appointees.

Updated at 11:12 p.m. and at 12:11 a.m.