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Obama suffers another defeat on immigration in federal court

TIM SLOANAFPGetty Images

A federal appeals court dealt President Obama a defeat on Tuesday when it declined to lift a judge’s order blocking the president’s sweeping executive action on immigration.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with a Texas judge who issued an injunction preventing the programs from going into effect. The appeals court judges ruled 2-1 that the order must stay in place.

“Because the government is unlikely to succeed on the merits of its appeal of the injunction, we deny the motion for stay and the request to narrow the scope of the injunction,” the judges wrote.

The court’s order makes it tougher for Obama to implement what the White House had seen as one of the signature programs of his second term, with just 20 months left in his administration.

The Department of Justice is weighing its next move, according to an administration official. That could include an appeal to the full 5th Circuit or to the Supreme Court.

After Congress declined to pass an immigration overhaul last year, Obama ordered the creation of a new program that allows parents of U.S. citizens or legal resident children to apply for temporary deportation relief and work permits.

He also expanded a similar program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that applies to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

But Texas and 25 other states filed a lawsuit challenging those actions, arguing Obama exceeded his constitutional authority. They also said the programs would overburden state healthcare, education and motor-vehicle services.

The White House has long argued that the president acted within the law by using “prosecutorial discretion” to exempt certain immigrants, who do not pose a public safety threat and who can contribute to their communities, from deportation.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in February slapped a preliminary injunction on the programs to stop them from taking effect while he considered the lawsuit.

The Department of Justice fought back in court, asking the 5th Circuit for an emergency stay lifting the order in March. The administration argued the states had no standing to bring the case because the federal government has the sole power to enforce immigration law.

Judges Jennifer Elrod and Jerry Smith of the 5th Circuit said the stay should remain in effect because the states had made a compelling case that they would suffer harm if the programs went into effect.

“The public interest favors maintenance of the injunction,” the judges wrote.

They also said granting stays of deportation to broad groups of immigrants goes beyond the president’s “prosecutorial discretion.”

“It is the affirmative act of conferring ‘lawful presence’ on a class of unlawfully present aliens,” the judges wrote. “Though revocable, that new designation triggers eligibility for federal and state benefits that would not otherwise be available.”

Elrod and Smith are both Republican appointees. Judge Stephen Higginson, an Obama appointee, dissented.

Higginson sided with the administration, arguing there is strong legal precedent showing immigration enforcement “must be decided, presently is being decided, and always has been decided, by the federal political branches.”

The White House slammed the majority opinion, accusing Elrod and Smith of choosing “to misinterpret the facts and the law in denying the government’s request for a stay.”

“The president’s actions … are squarely within the bounds of his authority, and they are the right thing to do for the country,” said spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called the 5th Circuit’s ruling a “victory for the Constitution.”

“I am pleased with the Court of Appeals for preserving the injunction against President Obama’s unlawful action and for recognizing the fundamental principles upon which our nation was founded,” he said.

Immigrant rights groups acknowledged the ruling was a setback and urged the Obama administration to appeal it to the Supreme Court.

“Today’s decision allows the lower court’s legally unsound decision blocking immigration relief to stay in place,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “We call upon the Justice Department to continue its efforts to get this injunction lifted by bringing the matter before the Supreme Court without delay.”

In addition to asking for a stay, the Justice Department has appealed the legal merits of Hanen’s order. A separate 5th Circuit panel is expected to hear arguments in July.

With the administration and the states showing no signs of giving in, the legal battle could spill into next year.

That could have implications for the 2016 election. Republicans have condemned Obama’s immigration actions as an overreach.

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Ruth Guerra knocked Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, for saying she would expand upon Obama’s executive actions.

“Today’s decision by the courts should come as no surprise to President Obama, who admitted over 22 times he didn’t have the legal authority to take this politically-motivated action or to Hillary Clinton who’d like to go further,” she said.

But Democrats and Hispanic groups could use GOP opposition to highlight its intraparty squabbles on immigration.

Hincapié called the lawsuit “a clear attack on our communities.”

“The longer justice is delayed, the harder the impact will be on our families,” she said.

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