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With High Court Evenly Split, Obama's Immigration Actions Remain On Hold

The Supreme Court deadlocked when it considered whether President Obama had the authority to shield millions of immigrants from deportation.

The 4-4 tie — announced in a single sentence by the court — deals a major blow to the president and leaves in place a lower court ruling that put his plan on hold.

If you remember, back in 2014, Obama announced that he was expanding his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which stopped the deportation of "dreamers," or young people who were brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents.

DACA, which was not under scrutiny here, shielded more than 1.1 million immigrants from deportation, while the expansion of that program and the creation of another — called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) — would have shielded some 4 million others.

Back in November, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that put DAPA and the expansion of DACA on hold while the government awaited a trial. The government appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, and the eight justices could not form a majority.

The deadlock leaves the big legal questions at the center of case — whether states have standing to sue the administration over this issue and whether Obama has the constitutional authority to enact those programs — unresolved.

The deadlock also means the decision of the 5th Circuit stands, and with little time left in Obama's term, this could essentially be the last judicial fight over his executive actions on immigration.

Immigration advocates reacted with disappointment.

In a statement, Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said Obama needed to announce a new plan immediately.

"It will be fully unacceptable for the President to use this decision as an excuse for inaction in cleaning up the mess created by his brutal deportation policy," Alvarado said.

Reporting from San Marcos, Texas, NPR's John Burnett talked to Karina, who has been in the United States for 15 years and is the mother of four U.S. citizen children.

She heard the news on CNN in the hotel breakfast area where she works.

"It's very sad because we wanted to do many things with the hope that we could travel legally without fear, find better work, get drivers licenses," she said. "When I saw the bad news, I didn't want to believe it, I didn't want to believe this was the court's definitive decision."

In a short televised statement, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan hailed the decision, saying it affirms the country's separation of powers.

"Congress, not our president, writes our law," Ryan said.

In his own statement, Obama shrugged off Ryan, saying the deadlock lets the status quo stand. The 4-4 decision, Obama said, "wasn't any value statement or a decision on the merits on these issues.

Ultimately, Obama added, it is now up to the American voters to decide how to proceed on immigration.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.