NEW YORK — Undocumented immigrants and allies on Friday marked the one-year anniversary of President Obama's executive actions on immigration with a sense of bittersweet celebration: Administration officials were still fighting hard to green-light the measures — earlier in the day they had asked the Supreme Court for the final word in a legal battle holding the programs back. But at best, it will still take a long, long time before undocumented immigrants will be able to see their lives dramatically changed for the better.
Groups gathered in major cities across the country on Friday to pay tribute to a primetime address that Obama gave exactly one year ago, unveiling an unprecedented and legacy-defining plan on immigration. As many as 5 million undocumented immigrants that night found out that they could have a chance to earn a temporary legal status and apply to work aboveboard without the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.
But little has changed over the last year for the millions of people who have been waiting in the wings. A lawsuit brought by Texas and 25 other states succeeded in delaying the actions in the year since Obama made his announcement. Those states are now looking to deal a mortal blow to the heart of the program.
The drawn-out legal battle weighs heavy on the resolve of a community that has been fighting for immigration reform for the last several decades.
"We were really, really happy for our family and friends — they had been living in fear and pain so unnecessarily," Javier Ramirez-Baron, director of the group Cabrini Immigrant Services, said at a rally in New York on Friday. "It has been difficult keeping up that spirit," he added.
A nearly four-month stretch of radio silence from the appeals court that heard the case tested the patience of advocates who were waiting in desperation for a decision. Legal experts widely believed it was a forgone conclusion that the conservative-leaning court would rule against the administration. But when?
Attorneys from the Department of Justice argued their case before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in July, pressing for the three-judge panel to lift the preliminary injunction on the case that had been imposed by a lower court. But the 5th Circuit didn't come back with an answer until last week. The delay left little time for the administration to come back with a response and ask the Supreme Court for a final review, angering some immigrants who hope to see the executive programs in place before Obama leaves office.
"The fact that it was delayed for weeks and months — it was exhausting for the community," said Thanu Yakupitiyage, communications manager for the New York Immigration Coalition.
Though administration officials worked at an uncharacteristically fast pace in order to submit its petition to the Supreme Court, the timing is still tight. The states that brought the initial lawsuit have 30 days to submit a response. In their legal arsenal is the ability to extend that deadline another month. That leaves a very narrow window for the Supreme Court to take up the case in the next term, which would be argued in the spring and ruled upon by late June.
Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said groups will be prepared to submit amicus briefs in support of the administration in order to do as much as possible to expedite the process. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Hincapié pointed to similarities the immigration lawsuit shared with the landmark case on marriage equality last term. That case too operated on a condensed timeline, but because of the cultural significance of the case and its broad impact, justices agreed to take it on.
“It’s a case of national significance,” Hincapié said. “We’re hoping that we will also be able to celebrate in June of this year as we achieve justice for our families.”