Legal

Supreme Court Deals Blow to Obama’s Immigration Plan — and to Hopes of ‘Dreamers’

June 24, 2016

Allison Shelley, Getty Images
Crowds gathered outside the Supreme Court building on Thursday as the justices ruled on a lawsuit seeking to block President Obama’s immigration plan, which would protect millions of immigrants, many of them relatives of college students, from deportation. The court deadlocked, preserving a lower-court decision against the plan.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s deadlock on Thursday in a key immigration case disappointed college students who had hoped for reassurance that their parents and siblings wouldn’t be deported.

The 4-to-4 decision upheld a lower court’s ruling to halt President Obama’s plans to extend protection from deportation to up to five million more people.

The decision won’t affect the status of students and others who were granted protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the Obama administration put in place in 2012.

That program, known as DACA, provides a two-year reprieve for certain young people, including students and military veterans, who are in the country illegally. During that time, they can work and may not be deported.

Anyone who meets the DACA criteria is still eligible to keep and renew that status, said Nina Perales, vice president for litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The Supreme Court’s impasse, however, will block plans, announced by President Obama in 2014, that would have expanded such protection to many of the students’ parents and siblings.

The proposed program, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, would have extended deportation protection to certain adult immigrants with a son or daughter who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.

The president had also sought to expand the age range covered by the DACA program, allowing more people to remain in the United States legally.

Neither of those plans took effect because a lower court granted an injunction to 26 mostly Republican-led states that had challenged the proposal. The Supreme Court’s tie vote on Thursday in United States v. Texas, No. 15-674, means that the lower court’s decision will stand, and suggests that a final ruling on the merits of the lawsuit would go the same way.

Clouded Status

President Obama expressed disappointment with the decision on Thursday. He added, however, that the people he was trying to protect with his expanded policies would "remain low priorities for enforcement."

"As long as you have not committed a crime," he said, "our limited immigration-enforcement resources are not focused on you."

Still, the cloud the decision puts on immigrants’ long-term legal status could throw more uncertainty into the job prospects of so-called Dreamers, young people who were brought to this country illegally, some students fear. It also makes them fear that their families could be split apart.

Alejandro Mendiaz-Rivera, a 26-year-old graduate student in public administration at the University of New Mexico who has a temporary reprieve under the DACA program, said he still worries about his relatives.

“I fear for my aunts and uncles who struggle to build a better future for my cousins, who are American citizens.”
"I’m working on my third renewal for deferred action, and I feel privileged to be able to do that," he said. "But I fear for my aunts and uncles who struggle to build a better future for my cousins, who are American citizens." If people in their situation had legal protection, they wouldn’t have to work at low-wage jobs that pay under the table, and they would be able, in states like New Mexico, to pursue a college education at lower in-state tuition rates, he said.

He’s afraid the ruling will empower opponents of the president’s immigration plans. "Who’s to say that they won’t place an injunction on issuing DACA renewals?" he said. "We may be the next targets."

Also among those disappointed in the ruling was Michael A. Olivas, a professor of law at the University of Houston who teaches immigration law and higher-education law.

He called DACA "a transformative use of the president’s discretionary authority" that has allowed "nearly three-quarters of a million college students to hold employment, to pay into Social Security, to remain in the U.S., and to be lawfully present — a legal condition that in turn has entitled them to drivers’ licenses and other benefits in most states."

Mr. Olivas, who is on leave from his law-school job while he serves as interim president of the University of Houston’s Downtown campus, said the matter would return for a trial in Brownsville, Tex.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.