President Barack Obama’s dream of what he says is a more humane immigration system was quashed by the Supreme Court on Thursday with a ruling that ended a policy meant to keep families together.
The court, in a 4-4 tie, upheld a Texas case that had stopped Obama’s executive order that put off deportations of the undocumented parents of children who are either American citizens or legal residents.
Underscoring the impact of the ruling, a “disappointed” Obama went to the White House briefing room to repudiate it, saying the court could not decide because it was not at full strength: nine justices.
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The decision upholds a Texas court ruling freezing the 2014 plan, which was never implemented, and prevents an expansion of another program that prevents children brought to the U.S. without documentation from being deported.
More than 4 million residents in the U.S. without documentation are affected by the 2014 plan, though the government does not plan to step up deportations. Obama stressed that “this does not substantially change the status quo.”
Still, the ruling was “devastating” to many in the Kansas City area, including Yara Puente’s undocumented parents, who are among an estimated 2,000 people locally who would potentially have benefited from the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA.
“I knew I had to comfort my parents,” said Puente, a 22-year-old self-described activist with the Kansas Missouri Dream Alliance. “I broke it to them. I told them the result and how it was a tie. How it would go back to the lower court and how more than likely it would not be constitutional.
“They were very heartbroken and they were very sad,” Puente said of her parents, who are natives of Mexico, “but they know that I believe that we will continue to push.”
Puente is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which is not directly affected by the court ruling Thursday. But her family’s situation illustrates the complexities of current immigration law.
“You have this mixed status in your home,” said Gilbert Guerrero, vice president of the Guadalupe Centers in Kansas City. “You have a kid who can’t be deported, or wouldn’t be deported because he was born here. But his older sister or brother is eligible for deportation. The parents are eligible for deportation. You walk in the shadows. You don’t fully participate. You’re afraid to participate.”
Juan Sanchez, a 21-year-old student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and co-director of the Kansas Missouri Dream Alliance, is a beneficiary of DACA. His two younger brothers were born in this country, but his parents are undocumented. They live in fear of a broken taillight or a checkpoint.
“We don’t talk about it much, but it’s always in the back of their heads that one day they will get pulled over and sooner or later they are going to get deported,” Sanchez said.
In December, Nubia Estefes, of Olathe, became a U.S. citizen, many years after arriving from Mexico at age 3 with her mother. Her two daughters, ages 7 and 2, are U.S. citizens. But her husband, a construction worker, is undocumented and faces deportation at any time. Before driving anywhere, the couple’s daughters help their father circle the car to look for a broken taillight.
The family had been preparing for a favorable decision on DAPA so they could apply for Estefes’ husband to gain a legal re-entry to the U.S. Now the family continues to face uncertainty.
“It makes me really sad,” Estefes said of the court. “Sad that they are playing with my family.”
Robert Sagastume, also of the Kansas Missouri Dream Alliance, said the court’s tie verdict was “definitely a surprise,” but he was undaunted, saying that efforts to protect undocumented immigrants would continue.
Jackie Saavedra of United We Dream, a network of young immigrants and allies, said she was angry at the Supreme Court.
“We have families that we’ve been telling for months that this type of relief was going to come, that they wouldn’t have to fear deportation anymore, that they wouldn’t have to fear going to work and getting pulled over by the police and never seeing their families again,” she said.
Now, she said, “we have to go and tell our community that this program isn’t available anymore, that the Supreme Court really took the easy way out on this and decided not to make a decision.”
It has become increasingly likely that the next president will appoint a replacement for Scalia. Hillary Clinton is the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, and Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee.
“There’s a sense of foreboding in the community right now,” Guerrero said.
Saavedra said her efforts would pivot toward getting out the vote. United We Dream works with nonprofits and will not endorse a candidate when working to register eligible community members, she said.
“If we present information about the two candidates, they’ll be able to make up their minds pretty quick,” she said.
Trump has repeatedly called for a massive wall to be built along the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent northbound migration. Part of Clinton’s campaign involves providing deportation relief and creating a broader avenue for immigrants to become U.S. citizens.
The Supreme Court on Thursday issued a rare, one-sentence decision: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided court.”
The tie vote all but ensured that Obama will leave office in January without resolving what he hoped would be a key piece of his legacy.
“For more than two decades now, our immigration system, everybody acknowledges, has been broken,” Obama said. “And the fact that the Supreme Court wasn’t able to issue a decision today doesn’t just set the system back even further, it takes us further from the country that we aspire to be.”
But he stressed that the solution was for Congress to approve a comprehensive overhaul to immigration law.
“Sooner or later, immigration reform will get done,” Obama said. “It’s not a matter of if, but when.”
The decision reflected the split in Congress and the nation, as well as the presidential campaign, over immigration. Democrats, including Clinton, decried the ruling. Republicans hailed it. Clinton tweeted in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. Trump’s campaign has centered on controlling illegal immigration.
Texas led the challenge to the order and was joined by 25 other states.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican who led the fight against the order when he was attorney general, said in a statement: “The action taken by the president was an unauthorized abuse of presidential power that trampled the Constitution, and the Supreme Court rightly denied the president the ability to grant amnesty contrary to immigration laws.”
Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican and a former Texas Supreme Court judge who filed an amicus brief along with other U.S. lawmakers, said: “By going around Congress to grant legal status to millions of people here illegally, the president abused the power of his office and ignored the will of the American people. The president can’t circumvent the legislative process simply because he doesn’t get what he wants.”
The House of Representatives had taken the rare step of joining the challenge to the order at the Supreme Court.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said: “This is a win for the Constitution, it’s a win for Congress and it’s a win in our fight to restore the separation of powers. Presidents don’t write laws — Congress writes laws. This is a case that the House weighed in on because it is fundamental to our system of checks and balances.”
But for supporters of deferring deportations, the decision was what Rocio Saenz, the executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, called a “historic failure.”
“This is personal,” said Saenz. “We will remain at the front lines, committed to defending the immigration initiatives and paving the path to lasting immigration reform.”
Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said: “The stakes in United States v. Texas could not have been higher: Millions have watched, and waited, for the Supreme Court to affirm the president’s authority to inject some common sense into our immigration system. Today the eight justices failed to act, and countless families will suffer as a consequence.”
In Kansas City, community organizers chalked up the Supreme Court decision as a loss but said it was only part of a bigger picture.
At a meeting Thursday at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City, some organizers called for greater mobilization of immigrants and concerned citizens to influence decisions on immigration matters, but also on Medicaid expansion and school funding that affect the same communities.
“One of the biggest things about our community is we are a growing Latino community,” said Irene Caudillo, CEO of the nonprofit El Centro, based in Wyandotte County.
Caudillo said the community needs to put pressure on elected officials and get more people to vote.
“We can’t just do it in the presidential elections,” she said. “We have to do it on the local and state level. Stand up. Get a place at the table. Build that base of support.”
Anita Kumar of McClatchy News and Ian Cummings of The Star contributed to this report.