Conservative Supreme Court justices expressed sharp skepticism about President Barack Obama’s immigration efforts Monday, leaving his actions to help millions of people who are in the country illegally in the hands of a seemingly divided court.
“It’s as if ... the president is setting the policy and the Congress is executing it. That’s just upside down,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said.
As hundreds of pro-immigration demonstrators and a smaller number of opponents filled the sidewalk outside the court, the justices appeared to split along ideological and partisan lines over a case that pits Republican governors and members of Congress against the Democratic administration.
Obama’s administration is asking the justices to allow it to put in place two programs that could shield roughly 4 million people from deportation and make them eligible to work in the United States.
The programs would apply to parents of children who are citizens or are living in the country legally. Eligibility also would be expanded for the president’s 2012 effort that applies to people who were brought here illegally as children.
More than 700,000 people have taken advantage of that earlier program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
The new program for parents, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, and the expanded program for children could reach as many as 4 million people, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Georgia is one of 26 states led by Republicans in challenging the programs that Obama announced in 2014 and that have been put on hold by lower courts.
“The Constitution prohibits the president from writing laws himself,” said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. “This case is just one of many examples of overreach by the president to further his own agenda, but it is one of the most significant because of the amnesty it creates for more than 4 million illegal immigrants.”
If the court is split ideologically, the case could end in a 4-4 tie following Justice Antonin Scalia's death in February. That would leave the programs in limbo, almost certainly through the end of Obama’s presidency.
Several justices remarked how Congress provides enough money to deport only about 400,000 people annually.
The bulk of immigrants who live in the U.S. illegally “are here whether we want them or not,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
The high court is expected to decide by late June whether the efforts can move forward in the waning months of Obama’s presidency.
One way for the court to avoid dipping into the complex details of immigration law would be to adopt the administration’s argument that Texas has no right to challenge the programs in federal court.
But Chief Justice John Roberts did not seem interested in that idea, noting that a ruling on the technical issue of standing would put Texas in a “Catch-22.”
Republican governors and members of Congress have argued that Obama doesn’t have the power to effectively change immigration law.
When he announced the measures 17 months ago, Obama said he was acting under his own authority because Congress had failed to overhaul the immigration system. The Senate had passed legislation on a bipartisan vote, but House Republicans refused to put the matter to a vote.
The administration and immigration advocates say Obama’s orders are neither unprecedented nor even unusual. Rather, they say, the programs build on past efforts by Democratic and Republican administrations to use discretion in deciding whom to deport.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said his group is one of hundreds that filed an amicus brief in support of Obama’s actions.
“Previous SCOTUS rulings and the Constitution are behind President Obama’s executive actions on immigration,” he said. “The impact, one way or another, will be felt by millions of families nationwide and several thousand in Hall County.”
In Gainesville, 42 percent of residents are Latino, as are about 1 in 4 across Hall County.
Additionally, more than 15 percent of residents in the county are foreign-born, and that figure surpasses 25 percent in Gainesville, according to 2014 U.S. Census numbers.
The protection from deportation is “discretionary, temporary and revocable relief from the daily fear that they will be separated from their families,” Thomas Saenz, arguing on behalf of three mothers of U.S. citizen children, told the court.
Diana Paola Vela-Martinez, a pre-med student at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus, has received DACA status to continue working and studying locally without fear of deportation.
An immigrant from Mexico who came to the United States at age 4, Vela-Martinez said she is hopeful that her family members will be protected as well.
“Personally, my uncles would be able to live a normal life and be able to drive without fear and feel welcomed to this country,” she said. “I just hope we are all able to work together to make a more progressive society when it comes to immigration issues.”
Sheila Nicholas, chairwoman of the Hall County Democratic Party, said she supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are working here already.
The ramifications of Obama’s executive action could be felt throughout Gainesville’s poultry and agriculture industries, where many Latino immigrants work, Nicholas added.
Debra Pilgrim, chairwoman of the Hall County Republican Party, said the law is the law and must be followed.
“What Obama is proposing is breaking the law,” she added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.