The Supreme Court will hear a major immigration case this term challenging President Obama's executive actions to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from being deported.
The justices' announcement Tuesday provides the Obama administration's greatest shot at getting the 2014 executive measures on track before the president leaves office. Oral arguments for the case are set for this spring with a final decision ultimately coming by the end of the court's term in June.
The timing sets up what would be a landmark decision coming weeks ahead of both parties' 2016 conventions, with what could potentially set the baseline of expectations on immigration policy should Congress ever again take up comprehensive immigration reform.
Obama's executive actions, first announced in November 2014, have been on hold for nearly a year. A U.S. District Court judge in Texas put a freeze on the programs last February out of a lawsuit brought by 26 states challenging Obama's executive authority. A three-judge panel out of the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld that decision.
Many observers expected the court to take up the case purely for how it stands to impact so many people, both directly and indirectly. The justices on Tuesday also added the question to the case of whether the president is faithfully executing laws.
On paper, the executive measures would shield nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants from any threat of deportation. The programs, known as DACA expanded and DAPA, allow undocumented immigrants to apply for temporary legal status in the U.S. that is renewable after three years.
In reality, and from a human stand-point, the actions open up access to the everyday normalcies of American life that undocumented immigrants have been largely shut out from, even though many have lived in the states for years. It would mean that full communities could suddenly work aboveboard, pay taxes, open bank accounts for the first time and learn how to drive.
Most importantly, the executive measures formally dictate that as many as five out of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. cannot be deported. Immigrants who do not qualify for DACA or DAPA, especially for those with criminal records, would rise to the top as the administration's priority to remove from the U.S.
This is a very big deal considering that millions of people live in what are called mixed-status households, meaning there's a mix of U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants living under one roof. This means that if a single person is deported, say an undocumented parent, aunt or uncle, it sends shockwaves through the entire household and community. But with DAPA, it lessens that primal fear that you would come home one day to find that your family members have been taken away.
Political wrangling over immigration has always been a contentious topic, but this year has been particularly nasty. That's not likely to stop anytime soon. Republican leaders have called the executive actions everything from "amnesty" to "executive overreach." Members of Congress tried repeatedly to gut the existing DACA program that has been on the books since 2012. But it was only the lawsuit brought by Texas and 25 other states that was able to delay the actions nearly until their demise.
All Republican presidential candidates have come out against Obama's immigration actions. This matters because since the programs are executive measures, and not legislation, the next president could easily erase them the moment they assume office.
Some say Obama didn't go far enough with his executive powers. DREAMers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as kids, were the first to receive benefits in 2012. But Obama's 2014 actions notably left out the parents of DREAMers. The administration knew that the actions were going to be challenged in the court. The president has said he wanted to take the most pragmatic approach by making his programs as far-reaching as possible under the confines of the law.
The Obama administration has said from the beginning of the legal battles that the case would likely have to be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. Officials have been adamant for months that the measures would ultimately prevail and the justices would decide that the president has the authority to allocate resources and decide who should or shouldn't be deported.
Still, Democratic presidential candidates have all vowed to go further than Obama with their own executive actions to include the parents of DREAMers. That could expand the pool of eligible applicants to as high as 9 million.
That makes both political parties' positions on the executive actions like night and day, or literally the difference between helping zero and 9 million people.