WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday announced that it had deadlocked in a case challenging President Barack Obama's immigration plan, a sharp blow to an ambitious program that Obama had hoped would become one of his central legacies. As a result, as many as 5 million unauthorized immigrants will not be shielded from deportation or allowed to legally work in the United States.
The 4-4 deadlock, which left in place an appeals court ruling blocking the plan, amplified the already contentious election-year debate over the nation's immigration policy and presidential power.
The case, United States v. Texas, No. 15-674, concerned an executive action by the president to allow as many as 5 million unauthorized immigrants who are the parents of citizens or of lawful permanent residents to apply for a program that would spare them from deportation and provide them with work permits. The program was called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA.
Obama has said he took action in 2014 after years of frustration with Republicans in Congress who had repeatedly refused to support bipartisan Senate legislation to update immigration laws. A coalition of 26 states, led by Texas, promptly challenged the plan, accusing the president of ignoring administrative procedures for changing rules and of abusing the power of his office by circumventing Congress.
"Today's decision keeps in place what we have maintained from the very start: One person, even a president, cannot unilaterally change the law," Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, said in a statement after the ruling. "This is a major setback to President Obama's attempts to expand executive power, and a victory for those who believe in the separation of powers and the rule of law."
For Obama, the ruling is a rebuke to his go-it-alone approach to immigration and effectively blocks any hope that his administration could protect millions of immigrants from the threat of deportation before he hands the presidency to his successor.
In a brief statement from the White House, Obama said the ruling is a deep disappointment for the millions of immigrants who will not be able to emerge from the threat of deportation for at least the balance of his term.
"Today's decision is frustrating to those who seek to grow our economy and bring a rationality to our immigration system," he told reporters before heading to the West Coast for a two-day trip. "It is heartbreaking for the millions of immigrants who have made their lives here."
Obama said the White House does not believe the very brief ruling from the court has any effect on the president's authority to act unilaterally. But he said the practical effect will be to freeze his efforts on behalf of immigrants until after the November election.
"Now, we have got a choice about who we are going to be as a country and what we want to teach our kids," Obama said. A moment later, he added, "In November, Americans are going to have to make a decision about what we care about and who we are."
He also said the ruling is a stark reminder of the Republican refusal to consider Judge Merrick B. Garland, the president's nominee to the Supreme Court. He said the court's deadlock on the immigration case is proof that the Republican strategy is not "sustainable" over the long run.
He also predicted that lawmakers will eventually act to overhaul the nation's immigration system.
"Congress is not going to be able to ignore America forever. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," he said. "We get these spasms of politics around immigration and fear-mongering, and then our traditions and our history and our better impulses kick in."
White House officials had repeatedly argued that presidents in both parties have used similar executive authority in applying the nation's immigration laws. And they said Congress has granted federal law enforcement wide discretion over how those laws should be carried out.
But the court's ruling most likely means that the next president will once again need to seek a congressional compromise to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. And it leaves immigration activists deeply disappointed.
"This is personal," Rocio Saenz, the executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, said in a statement. "We will remain at the front lines, committed to defending the immigration initiatives and paving the path to lasting immigration reform."
In February 2015, Judge Andrew S. Hanen of U.S. District Court in Brownsville, Texas, entered a preliminary injunction shutting down the program while the legal case proceeded. The government appealed, and a divided three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans affirmed the injunction.
In their Supreme Court briefs, the states acknowledged that the president had wide authority over immigration matters, telling the justices that "the executive does have enforcement discretion to forbear from removing aliens on an individual basis." Their quarrel, they said, was with what they called a blanket grant of "lawful presence" to millions of immigrants, entitling them to various benefits.
In response, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. told the justices that this "lawful presence" was merely what had always followed from the executive branch's decision not to deport someone for a given period of time.
"Deferred action does not provide these individuals with any lawful status under the immigration laws," he said. "But it provides some measure of dignity and decent treatment."
"It recognizes the damage that would be wreaked by tearing apart families," Verrilli added, "and it allows individuals to leave the shadow economy and work on the books to provide for their families, thereby reducing exploitation and distortion in our labor markets."
The states said they had suffered the sort of direct and concrete injury that gave them standing to sue.
Judge Jerry E. Smith, writing for the majority in the appeals court, focused on an injury said to have been suffered by Texas, which he said would have to spend millions of dollars to provide driver's licenses to immigrants as a consequence of the federal program.
Verrilli told the justices that Texas' injury was self-inflicted, a product of its decision to offer driver's licenses for less than they cost to produce and to tie eligibility for them to federal standards.
Texas responded that being required to change its laws was itself the sort of harm that conferred standing.
"Such a forced change in Texas law would impair Texas' sovereign interest in 'the power to create and enforce a legal code,'" the state's lawyers wrote in a brief.
Hanen grounded his injunction on the Obama administration's failure to give notice and seek public comments on its new program. He found that notice and comment were required because the program gave blanket relief to entire categories of people, notwithstanding the administration's assertion that it required case-by-case determinations about who was eligible for the program.
The appeals court affirmed that ruling and added a broader one. The program, it said, also exceeded Obama's statutory authority.