WASHINGTON — An ideologically deadlocked Supreme Court dealt a severe blow Thursday to President Barack Obama’s immigration reform plan, casting the November election as a referendum on how to deal with the more than 11 million people living in the country illegally.
The 4-4 vote leaves in place a Texas federal judge’s order that has prevented Obama from granting deportation relief and work permits to more than 4 million immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizens or legal residents.
The tie means it will be left to the next president, the next Congress and possibly a nine-member high court to address what is widely seen as a broken immigration system.
The ruling does not mean that the government will now begin deporting people who might have been eligible for Obama’s program. Speaking at the White House after the ruling, Obama emphasized that parents of U.S. citizens “will remain low priorities for enforcement. As long as you have not committed a crime, our limited immigration enforcement resources are not focused on you.”
The immediate practical impact, however, will be that those several million people will continue to be unable to work legally in the U.S. Obama’s program would have provided legal work authority to those who qualified.
The dispute was one of the major clashes this year before the Supreme Court, and the stalemate demonstrated once again how the current eight-member court — left equally divided since the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia — has been unable to issue definitive rulings in the most contested cases.
The justices issued a one-line decision in United States vs. Texas saying the judgment of the lower court “is affirmed by an equally divided court.”
The split was almost certainly along the familiar ideological lines, though the justices’ votes were not revealed.
During oral arguments in April, the conservative justices, all Republican appointees, had voiced support for the lawsuit by Texas and 25 other Republican-led states, which said Obama’s action was illegal.
The four liberal justices, all Democratic appointees, appeared to favor the administration and its claims that the president has broad power under immigration law to set enforcement policies.
In announcing his Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents in 2014, Obama said that deportations should focus on criminals, gang members and people who repeatedly cross the border, but not on immigrant parents of U.S. citizens.
Obama proposed to allow people who fit this category to come forward, undergo a background check and receive a work permit if they qualified. It was similar to a previous program that benefited immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, dubbed “Dreamers.” That program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is unaffected by Thursday’s ruling.
Texas state lawyers said Obama’s second immigration-reform plan went too far. They sued in a federal court in Brownsville. A judge issued a national order preventing Obama’s plan from going into effect, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld that order.
Obama mourned his defeat Thursday, calling the court’s nondecision “disappointing” and “frustrating.”
“Here’s the bottom line: We’ve got a very real choice that America faces right now,” he said in the White House press room. “We’re going to have to make a decision about whether we are a people who tolerate hypocrisy of a system where the workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law.”
He said the tie vote also shows the need for the GOP-controlled Senate to vote on his nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill Scalia’s seat. Republicans are insisting that the vacancy should be filled by the next president.
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, called the court’s deadlock “unacceptable.”
It “shows us all just how high the stakes are in this election,” she said. If elected, Clinton promised to go further and seek legislation that offers a “path to citizenship” for immigrants.
She cited the contrast with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who has promised to deport all immigrants here illegally and build a wall along the Mexican border.
Trump attacked Clinton for vowing to double down on Obama’s efforts.
“The election, and the Supreme Court appointments that come with it, will decide whether or not we have a border and, hence, a country,” Trump said.
Until Thursday, supporters of Obama’s immigration plan had hoped that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. or one of his conservative colleagues would vote to throw out the Texas suit. In the past, the conservatives have been skeptical of states challenging federal initiatives, questioning whether states have standing to sue.
But in recent years, conservatives also have been troubled by Obama’s willingness to use his executive authority to make changes in response to deadlock on Capitol Hill.
They accused the president of overstepping his authority, and those concerns were widely voiced when the immigration dispute moved into the court.
Critics note the president conceded that he took action on immigration only after the Republican-controlled House failed to approve an immigration reform plan. Texas lawyers insisted that only Congress, not the president, could change the immigration laws.
In January, the conservative justices signaled their leanings when they said they would consider not only the legality of the program, but also whether the president had failed in his constitutional duty to “faithfully” execute the laws, a rarely invoked provision.
But Scalia’s death left the court’s conservatives without a solid majority to rule more broadly and possibly rebuke the president directly.
Nevertheless, Republicans praised Thursday’s outcome.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling makes the president’s executive action on immigration null and void,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). “The Constitution is clear: The president is not permitted to write laws — only Congress is. This is another major victory in our fight to restore the separation of powers.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who launched the lawsuit against Obama’s plan, said the outcome “rightly denied the president the ability to grant amnesty contrary to immigration laws. Today’s ruling is also a victory for all law-abiding Americans, including the millions of immigrants who came to America following the rule of law.”
The impact of the deadlock will be felt broadly in California, where more than a quarter of the affected immigrants reside.
But Thomas Saenz, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles, said the court’s action “creates no new law and does not decide” whether Obama’s relief measures are legal.
“This is a temporary setback,” he said.