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Justices Appear Divided On Immigration Case

The atmosphere was celebratory, as if they had already won.

In reality, victory, defeat or a draw in a case that could determine the future of millions of immigrants in the country illegally is likely still months away.

On Monday morning — in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C. and in dozens of cities across the country — thousands of immigrants and their supporters rallied in support of President Obama’s executive actions giving four million undocumented immigrants temporary relief from deportation. The rallies took place as the high court’s eight justices listened to oral arguments in United States v. Texas, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the president’s authority to bring the actions.

Questions raised by the eight justices seem to indicate they are deeply divided 4-4, with the four conservative justices leaning toward upholding the lower court’s ruling.

Lea este artículo en Español: Jueces Parecen Estar Divididos En Caso de Inmigración [1]

Defending the president’s actions, petitioners questioned whether Texas and the other states have standing to bring the lawsuit.

In May 2015, a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New Orleans upheld an injunction issued by a U.S. District judge in Texas in a lawsuit filed by Texas and 25 other Republican leaning states seeking to halt Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

The states argued that Obama overstepped his legal authority when he took the executive actions, insisting he does not have the ability to unilaterally set immigration policy.

The legal wrangling has suspended implementation of a program that would extend work permits and protection against deportation to parents of U.S.-born children and expand the existing program for immigrants who arrived illegally as children. The programs – often referred to by their acronyms, DAPA and DACA – would affect an estimated half-million Angelenos.

The three-justice panel ruled that the states had sufficient legal ground to bring suit and that the administration failed to show it would be harmed by further delays.

Congressman Xavier Becerra (D-34), whose district includes parts of East and Northeast Los Angeles, was in the Court for oral arguments and told EGP following the proceedings that the justices were attentive to both sides presenting arguments.

They asked very important questions, such as “how do you define lawful presence?” and “how do you treat the issue of removal [of undocumented immigrants]?” if it was to happen, he said.

For Becerra, the threshold is whether Texas even has the right to bring the case to court,  “because [they] have to prove that the state will be harmed” by the measures.

Thousands of people gathered on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to support DACA and DAPA. (Photo courtesy of office of Congressman Xavier Becerra) [2]

Thousands of people gathered on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to support DACA and DAPA. (Photo courtesy of office of Congressman Xavier Becerra)

In 2015, Texas argued that the state would suffer financial harm due to a Texas policy that allows the state to issue driver’s licenses to noncitizens lawfully living in the state.

Undocumented youth who qualified for DACA in 2012 were not initially allowed to apply for a Texas driver’s license, but that changed a year later when the Obama Administration confirmed that DACA recipients are authorized to be in the United States and therefore considered to be “lawfully present” under federal immigration laws.

During oral arguments Monday, U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli argued that under current Texas law, “They will give a driver’s license now to any category of person who has a document from the Federal government, not only saying you’re lawfully present, but that you’re officially – we’re officially tolerating your presence.”

“There are vast numbers of people under existing Texas law that are eligible for a license even though they are not lawfully present,” Verrelli said during the 90-minute session. He argued that Texas could change its law to deny driver’s licenses to immigrants.

“You would sue them instantly,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts responded. It’s “a real catch-22,” he said, referring to the possibility of the federal government suing Texas over its unequal treatment of immigrants deemed lawfully present in the country.

Speaking in defense of the president’s actions, MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz presented testimonials from three unauthorized immigrant mothers –identified as Jane Does – who would benefit from DAPA, defended the executive actions.

“The justices seemed closely engaged throughout the entire argument,” Saenz said during a telephone news conference following oral arguments. It was necessary to bring the “human faces” of those who are being put at risk, he added.

“Without their participation, the only parties would be political, so it was important to have the perspective of those who are waiting,” he told reporters.

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year has left the court divided 4-4 along partisan lines. If the conservative/liberal split holds, a 4-4 decision would allow the lower court’s decision to stand.

“There would be consideration of what could be done, in court or otherwise, to limit the scope of the nationwide injunction barring implementation of the guidance everywhere” in response, Saenz explained.

Plaintiffs in the case also claim that the immigration orders by President Obama represent a drastic change in the country’s policies without the authorization of Congress.

It’s an argument backed by California Congressman Darrell Issa (R-49) who represents the coastal areas of San Diego and Orange counties.

“The Constitution couldn’t be any clearer. It’s Congress’s job to write the laws and it’s the President’s job to see that they are faithfully executed,” said Issa in a statement Monday.

Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed to agree. “It’s as if the president is setting the policy and the Congress is executing it. That’s just upside down,” said Kennedy, typically the court’s swing vote.

“We have basically 10 million, nine hundred thousand people that cannot be deported because there’s not enough resources,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor after clarifying that Congress had only allocated funds to deport about 400,000 people in the country illegally each year. “So they are here whether we want them or not.”

A coalition of 15 states, including California, plus the District of Columbia and 118 cities and counties, however, have demonstrated support for the president’s actions.

In the friends-of-the-courts briefs, supporters of the president’s executive actions argue that his directives would not harm the 26 states seeking to overturn them but instead would be of substantial benefits not only to undocumented immigrants and their families, but to government coffers as well.

The brief, which was co-drafted by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Attorney Mike Feuer and their New York City counterparts, also points to the potential “economic harm” of not allowing taxpaying immigrants to work and stay in the country.

Obama’s executive policies are expected to inject as much as $800 million in “economic benefits” to state and local governments, according to the brief.

Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-40) who represents East L.A. and parts of Southeast and South L.A. said in a statement that President Obama’s executive actions to expand DACA and implement DAPA are not only legal, but also humane.

“If these actions take effect, more qualified immigrants will be able to come out of the shadows and contribute to our nation. More families will be able to live in peace, free from fears of being torn apart,” she said. “I am confident the Supreme Court will affirm that President Obama has every right to take these executive actions.”

Saenz said he is very optimistic. “I saw a court that was very much for justice.”

A final ruling is expected in June.

Information from City News Service used in this report.

Update  3:45 p.m. April 22, 2016: An earlier version of this story misspelled the names of Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard and  Darrell Issa.



Twitter @jackiereporter [3]