Court deals blow to Obama's immigration plan

President Barack Obama listens as Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks in the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on May 25, 2015. (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Barack Obama listens as Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks in the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on May 25, 2015.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected the Obama administration's request to lift the temporary freeze placed on the president's sweeping executive actions on immigration.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to stay the preliminary injunction that a Texas judge placed on President Obama's immigration measures in February, determining that the lawsuit brought by Texas and 25 other states would likely succeed in challenging those actions.

"There is a substantial likelihood that a partial injunction would be ineffective ..."'

The ruling Tuesday affects millions of undocumented immigrants who would have qualified for the executive measures -- known as DAPA and DACA expansion. Together, the two programs would have protected more than 4 million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation, granting them a temporary work permit and legal status in the United States.

The court also rejected the administration's request to limit the injunction to only the states involved in the lawsuit, arguing that it would create a "patchwork system" that would undermine uniform enforcement. "There is a substantial likelihood that a partial injunction would be ineffective because DAPA beneficiaries would be free to move between the states," the court said. 

The decision is not entirely unexpected. The 5th Circuit has garnered a reputation as one of the most conservative appeals court in the country, and it was clear that the Obama administration faced stiff odds after its unprecedented two-hour oral arguments last month. Two of the three judges serving on the panel were appointed by Republican presidents.

Judge Stephen Higginson, an Obama appointee, wrote the dissent, arguing the issue was not up for the courts to decide.

"The underlying issue presented to us -- the order in which non-citizens without documentation must be removed from the United States -- must be decided, presently is being decided, and always has been decided, by the federal political branches," Higginson said. “I would not affirm intervention and judicial fiat ordering what Congress has never mandated.”

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At the district court level, Judge Andrew Hanen found that Texas would face significant financial costs in being required to issue driver's licenses to non-citizens under the measures. In reviewing Hanen's decision, the 5th Circuit agreed, arguing that issuing a stay to the Texas judges' order would be much like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

“A stay would enable DAPA beneficiaries to apply for driver’s licenses and other benefits, and it would be difficult for the states to retract those benefits or recoup their costs even if they won on the merits,” the court said.

The administration for its part has argued that the benefits outweigh the costs, pointing to nearly $845 million in increased local and state tax revenue once millions of undocumented immigrants are allowed to work lawfully. "A plaintiff cannot be said to suffer an economic injury from conduct that financially benefits it," the administration argued in a last-ditch filing to the appeals court last week.

Obama's latest rounds of immigration actions, unveiled last November, were met with swift opposition from Republicans nationwide who feel the president overstepped his power. In a statement released Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott applauded the court's decision as a victory for the Constitution. "We live in a nation governed by a system of checks and balances, and the president's attempt to bypass the will of the American people was successfully checked again today," he said.

"This is a political attack on our community. This is a political lawsuit."'

A White House spokesperson said Tuesday the administration is evaluating the next step in the appeal process, but it is expected that the Department of Justice will take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. In a statement, the spokesperson expressed confidence that the administration would ultimately prevail. 

"Today, two judges of the 5th Circuit chose to misinterpret the facts and the law in denying the government's request for a stay.  As the powerful dissent from Judge Higginson recognizes, President Obama's immigration executive actions are fully consistent with the law," the spokesperson said.

Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, pressed for the administration to take the matter to the Supreme Court as quickly as possible.

"This is a political attack on our community. This is a political lawsuit. The longer that justice is delayed, the harder the impact will be on our community," Hincapie said in a call with reporters Tuesday. "We know the confusion and the fear that will be felt across the immigrant community as the news is shared."

Any additional delays to the executive programs could last several months to a year to fully resolve. The 5th Circuit is to hear the full merits of the legal challenge later on this year. In the interim, advocacy groups have continued to urge families who would have qualified for the program to prepare their applications in the event that the process opens up.

“We knew since the beginning that this was going to be a tough battle. Republicans strategically chose this conservative judge whom they knew would delay implementation and try to intimidate our community,” Erika Andiola, co-director of the advocacy group Dream Action Coalition, said in a statement. “We, however, were the ones who pressured the president, knowing it is a constitutional move, and we continue to be confident that we will win at the end.”