Appeals court deals blow to Obama's policy shift on immigration

The US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the White House Friday, hampering President Obama's latest efforts to promote the integration of undocumented immigrants into American society. 

Yuri Gripas
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver remarks at an Organizing for Action event in Washington November 9, 2015.

Once labeled the nation’s “deporter-in-chief,” President Barack Obama has since transformed his immigration enforcement policies, opting for a softer stance on deportation. But his shift towards leniency was indefinitely blocked Friday, when a federal appeals court ruled that his executive orders to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation are unconstitutional.

In Texas v. United States, the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case with a two-to-one vote, upholding the decision of the Texas lower court to reject Obama’s latest round of executive actions.

Following the failure of Congress to pass reform legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, the White House prescribed last fall a series of orders and policy changes, enacting Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) and expanding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Initiated in 2012, the latter gave “deferred action” status to young adults who entered the country illegally as children and granted them work eligibility. DAPA expanded the same amnesties to the undocumented parents of US citizens or greencard holders. Under the two memoranda, about 5 million people became eligible.

But when they were put into place November 2014, Obama’s executive orders caused an uproar on the other side of the aisle. Texas is among 26 states that sued shortly upon the release of DAPA. Enforcement of the policy has been on hold since February.

“The [Immigration and Naturalization Act] flatly does not permit the reclassification of millions of illegal aliens as lawfully present and thereby make them newly eligible for a host of federal and state benefits, including work authorization,” Judge Jerry Smith wrote in his majority opinion, published Monday.

Obama’s transition towards the integration of immigrants – especially those with community ties – over forceful removal emanated as the issue of immigration was losing momentum in Capitol Hill. Reform bills were defeated in Congress, and the wave of conservative Republicans elected in the midterm elections only diminished the likelihood of path-to-citizenship legislation.

So, by acknowledging to the vocal requests of immigration advocates and defying the position of his Republican colleagues, Obama departed from his aggressive course of deportations.

Since 2012, however, the rate of deportation has declined by 50 percent. At one point, as the Economist reported, the Obama Administration was deporting immigrants at nine times the rate of 20 years ago, having removed nearly 2 million people. This year, some 220,000 people will be ordered to leave the country, down 27 percent from last year.

Now, fewer immigrants are detained, and under Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s new priorities for arrest, 3,000 people have been released or had their violation charges dropped.

But the recent judicial rejection of DAPA dampens the little progress immigrants have seen in the past two years. It is now up to the Supreme Court to make a final decision – that is, if the justices agree to see the case.

Activists are hoping that immigration will emerge as a top issue for the 2016 election. As the White House plans on filing a petition, the deadline of which is in less than two weeks, a feasible SCOTUS ruling can be anticipated by June of next year.

"We strongly disagree with the 5th Circuit’s decision,” an unidentified White House official told Politico. "The Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security are reviewing the court’s decision as they consider the appropriate next steps for moving forward."

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