The Supreme Court split evenly on the legality of President Obama’s 2014 executive actions offering relief for 4.9 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. What now for these mixed-status families?
On June 6, the Supreme Court—a cohort of 8 justices with Justice Scalia’s seat still unfilled—handed down a 4–4 ruling in United States v. Texas, the case challenging President Obama’s 2014 executive order to provide temporary deportation relief and work visas to as many as 4.9 million undocumented parents of U.S. citizens (DAPA). The order also expanded a 2012 program which offered deferments to 730,000 non-citizen children who came to the U.S. while under the age of sixteen (DACA). The ruling leaves in place an earlier federal district court decision blocking the executive order, a result that undermines President Obama’s attempt to offer deportation relief, and leaves the future for millions of mixed-status families up in the air.
Among immigrant families and supporters of immigration reform, the decision is yet another disappointment. After years of Congressional gridlock and inaction, the order raised hopes that the plight of undocumented immigrants was finally being addressed and that the order would help keep immigrant families together. Now, the injunction against the executive order stands, at least until a new administration assumes control of the White House or, much less likely, Congress chooses to enact new immigration legislation. Another possibility is further litigation to challenge the injunction, and the case might even find itself before the Supreme Court once more, this time with a full complement of justices.
That is the legal overview of the situation. The human side is a more emotional and heartbreaking scenario. Individuals who have been in the U.S. for years or decades, raised children here, and contributed to their communities must continue to live in fear of detection and deportation. Without work visas, they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuses in the workplace, and their undocumented status also means they refrain from reporting crimes committed against them, such as domestic violence, theft or burglary, rape, to avoid informing government authorities of their presence. Most distressing of all, without the protection of the executive order, families are exposed to the very real possibility of being separated. Stories and statistics attest to the countless families who have suffered in this way—parents who have not seen their children for 10 or 20 years; adult children who cannot care for ailing parents; family members who have missed important family events—graduations, marriages, births and deaths. Though the injunction does not affect enforcement priorities announced in 2014 (namely, that individuals who have been in the U.S. for many years with a clean record are low priorities), fear of deportation infuses every aspect of life for undocumented immigrants, intensified by the high stakes of family separation.
The decision means that President Obama will leave office without accomplishing the major immigration reform he promised, and the media has reported on the impact of this decision on his immigration legacy. However, a more favorable decision would only offset other Administration policies that have harmed immigrants—years of ICE raids, most recently focused on Central American families; increased enforcement at an already over-militarized border; and the highest number of deportations and removals under any president in history. These are perhaps concessions to political leaders who do not favor immigration reform, but if so, they have not had the desired effect of finding a legislative compromise.
As President Obama acknowledges with a combination of pragmatism and hope, “Sooner or later, immigration reform will get done. Congress is not going to be able to ignore America forever. It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’” The waiting continues with this most recent setback, as immigrants, advocates and organizations, the KBI among them, continue to work for migrant rights, the preservation of families, and a compassionate immigration policy.
NOTE: Please see the following Passages article from May 2016 for more background on this case: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/the-supreme-court-and-immigration/.