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Hopes for Obama Immigration Legacy Dashed as Presidency Wanes

  • Mary Alice Salinas

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the White House briefing room in Washington about the Supreme Court decision on immigration, June 23, 2016.

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the White House briefing room in Washington about the Supreme Court decision on immigration, June 23, 2016.

President Barack Obama’s years-long push for immigration reform effectively ended Thursday when a Supreme Court deadlock cast into question the future of millions of undocumented immigrants and dashed the administration’s hope to make immigration reform a key part of his legacy.

“I have pushed to the limits of my executive authority,” Obama said. “We now have to have Congress act.”

The president suffered a “disappointing” setback when the Supreme Court split 4-4 on his plan to shield an estimated 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. The deadlock keeps in place a lower-court ruling that stalled his immigration plan. The president called it a “heartbreaking” development for those affected.

Question of authority

In the lower-court case, Texas and 25 other states claimed that Obama did not have the authority to shield the undocumented immigrants and that the president had illegally circumvented Congress by issuing the executive order.

FILE - Martha Gualotuna of New York, center left, walks across New York's Brooklyn Bridge during a march and rally highlighting immigration reform, Oct. 5, 2013. Gualotuna is one of the 4 million immigrants who would have benefited from a program that was blocked June 23, 2016, by a decision of the Supreme Court.

FILE - Martha Gualotuna of New York, center left, walks across New York's Brooklyn Bridge during a march and rally highlighting immigration reform, Oct. 5, 2013. Gualotuna is one of the 4 million immigrants who would have benefited from a program that was blocked June 23, 2016, by a decision of the Supreme Court.

The development laid bare how deeply divided America remains, particularly on the question of immigration, and how those fissures exist in all three branches of government.

As a U.S. senator campaigning for president, Obama vowed to overhaul the country’s “broken” immigration system. Now, with just a few months left in his presidency, Obama and the Republican-led Congress still remain at bitter odds on the issue.

The Senate passed a bipartisan proposal, but the House of Representatives refused to act on it.

'A real blow'

“This is a real blow to him because his movement on immigration was a core part of his legacy,” said Norman Ornstein, political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “There was deep frustration that even after the Senate moved in a strongly bipartisan way, the House simply refused to take it up.”

Obama argued Thursday that inaction in Congress had forced him to act.

“I was left with little choice but to take steps within my existing authority to make our immigration system smarter, fairer and more just,” he said.

But his critics have claimed that Obama has repeatedly overreached as president.

“Today’s decision keeps in place what we have maintained from the very start: One person, even a president, cannot unilaterally change the law,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. “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.”

Low expectations

Although there is bipartisan agreement on some issues, like criminal justice reform, analysts say Congress and the White House will most likely accomplish very little more before he leaves office in January.

“We know there isn’t much left with this Congress,” Ornstein said.

Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, arrives for a meeting with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 13, 2016.

Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, arrives for a meeting with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 13, 2016.

Congress has refused to consider Obama’s pick to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, leaving the high court without the ninth justice who would have cast the tie-breaking vote in the immigration case.

Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland in March to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died suddenly in February.

Republicans in the Senate have rejected calls to hold confirmation hearings for Garland, saying the vacant court seat should be filled by the next president following November elections.

Obama pointed out the court did not issue a decision on the “merits” of his plan and simply could not break the tie because it was missing a ninth judge. Still, the president added that he had done as much as he legally could do to reform the immigration system.

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