WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court blocked Barack Obama’s bid to shield millions of migrants from deportation on Thursday—a major blow to the president that thrusts the charged issue to the frontline of the battle to succeed him.
Justices in the under-strength court were split 4-4 over Obama’s bid to change immigration policy by executive action, thus leaving lower court rulings blocking the effort in place.
Obama dubbed the ruling “heartbreaking for the millions of immigrants who made their lives here” but warned his opponents they will not be able to thwart their dreams for much longer.
“In November, Americans have to make a decision about what we care about and who we are,” he declared, in a nod to the White House race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
The court normally has nine members, but Justice Antonin Scalia died in February and the Senate has refused to vote on Obama’s nominee, appeals court judge Merrick Garland, to replace him.
The deadlock leaves Obama’s immigration policy in limbo, like the fate of more than four million undocumented immigrants who stood to be given US work permits under the politically controversial plan.
“I promise you this, though, sooner or later immigration reform will get done. Congress is not going to be able to ignore America forever,” Obama said, throwing down the gauntlet to Republicans.
“The fact that the Supreme Court wasn’t able to issue a decision today doesn’t just set the system back further—it takes us further from the country that we aspire to be,” he warned.
Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state, was also quick to pivot from the defeat to the electoral battle ahead.
“Today’s heartbreaking SCOTUS immigration ruling could tear apart five million families facing deportation. We must do better,” she tweeted, even as Republicans celebrated the ruling.
Trump fired out a response while promoting a golf course in Scotland.
“SC has kept us safe from exec amnesty—for now. But Hillary has pledged to expand it, taking jobs from Hispanic & African-American workers,” he said in the first of a series of tweets assailing what he called Obama and Clinton’s policy of “open borders.”
In some of the toughest anti-immigrant rhetoric ever used by a major party candidate, Trump has vowed to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep out “rapists” and drug dealers.
He has also promised to suspend all immigration by Muslims and by people “from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies.”
Clinton, by contrast, has vowed that as president, she would “create a pathway to citizenship, keep families together, and enable millions of workers to come out of the shadows.”
Congressional Republicans have not all echoed Trump’s stance, but welcomed the court stalemate as a victory for efforts to stop Obama using executive authority to bypass Congress.
“The Supreme Court ruling today affirms that the president’s unilateral actions, which have marked his lame-duck term, will not stand,” Sen. John McCain said in a statement, echoing the views of many of his colleagues.
Frustrated by Congress’s repeated failure to pass immigration reform, in November 2014, Obama issued a decree to allow migrants whose children are legally resident to apply for permits.
This would have shielded families from deportation while the politically-charged issue of their status is determined, but the governors of 26 Republican-led states challenged the order—plunging the four million people potentially affected into uncertainty.
A second measure aimed to expand on an existing program that grants a reprieve to immigrants who entered the country as children.
Federal courts in Texas and Louisiana put the measures on hold and the case passed to the
Supreme Court, which on Thursday remained split along progressive-conservative lines.
Mexico’s government—whose nationals make up around half of all unauthorized immigrants in the US, according to Pew Research—openly supports Obama’s effort to limit the deportation of long-settled families.
A foreign ministry statement said Mexico “reiterates its conviction that the adoption of these programs would have a positive impact in the lives of millions of families of immigrants, as well as the development of the economy and the social fabric of the United States.”
Human Rights Watch says the constant threat of deportation leaves millions of people “exceptionally vulnerable” to serious abuses in the workplace, to sexual assault and to a lack of police protection.
“The Supreme Court’s decision in this case makes it even more urgent for the next president and Congress to take clear action for immigration reform,” said the group’s US advocacy director Antonio Ginatta in a statement.