Why 17 states are suing Obama administration over immigration action

Texas and 16 other states filed suit on Wednesday, charging that the president's executive action on immigration is unconstitutional.

Jon Herskovitz/Reuters
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference in Austin Wednesday. Texas is leading a 17-state coalition that sued the Obama administration on Wednesday over its executive order to ease the threat of deportation for some 4.7 million undocumented immigrants, Abbott said.

Texas and 16 other states filed suit on Wednesday against the Obama administration, charging that the president’s recent executive action on immigration is unconstitutional and violates federal law.

The 30-page complaint was filed in federal court in Brownsville by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

It accuses President Obama and his administration of failing to comply with a clause in the US Constitution that requires the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” 

It also accuses the administration of failing to follow the correct procedures in enacting the new immigration regulations.

Under the Obama plan, more than 4 million of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US are eligible for deferred action from deportation. They are also eligible for work permits.

The president’s unilateral action has sparked a debate over whether Mr. Obama is abusing his authority and ignoring the Constitution’s required separation of powers.

Supporters of the administration say the executive branch has broad discretion to set enforcement priorities under US immigration law. This is discretion authorized by Congress itself, they say.

Critics disagree.

“The President’s unilateral executive action tramples the US Constitution’s Take Care Clause and federal law,” Mr. Abbott, the governor-elect of Texas, said in a statement.

The action comes in response to the president’s Nov. 20 announcement that he was taking executive action to help millions of undocumented immigrants “come out of the shadows.”

Critics complain that Obama is ignoring a fundamental feature of American government: that Congress passes laws and the executive branch executes those laws. They complain that the president is changing the law without any input from Congress. 

The Texas complaint repeatedly quotes a phrase from Obama’s Nov. 20 speech: “What you are not paying attention to is, I just took an action to change the law.”

“The President is abdicating his responsibility to faithfully enforce laws that were duly enacted by Congress and attempting to rewrite immigration laws,” Abbott said.

The suit asks a federal judge to declare the president’s actions unconstitutional and unlawful. It seeks an injunction blocking implementation of the new immigration policies. 

Many legal commentators have suggested that filing a lawsuit against the executive branch may run into a substantial barrier. They say it would be difficult to establish the necessary legal standing to trigger federal court jurisdiction to hear the underlying dispute.

Texas and the other plaintiff states say that the new immigration policy will trigger a new, even larger, wave of would-be immigrants entering the country illegally. 

It will also create an incentive for human traffickers to prey on those arriving from Central America and Mexico – including very young children.

“The plaintiff states will be forced to expend substantial resources on law enforcement, healthcare, and education,” the complaint says.

“If the plaintiff states had the sovereign power to redress these problems, they would. But the Supreme Court has held that authority over immigration is largely lodged in the federal government,” the lawsuit said.

“Accordingly, litigation against the federal government is the only way for the states to vindicate their interests and those of their citizens.”

In addition to Texas, the other states in the lawsuit are: Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

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