CAPITOL HILL - A Supreme Court case that could impact millions of people in the United States and set boundaries for presidential authority has rekindled debate on immigration reform in Congress.
On Monday, the high court heard arguments on whether President Barack Obama's executive order shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation is permitted under the Constitution. Texas and more than 20 other Republican-led states argued against the order. The administration defended its action.
Across the street from the Supreme Court, debate has continued at the Capitol.
"The Supreme Court must do the right thing and recognize President Obama's authority," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.
Republican Senator John Cornyn countered that Democrats are "telling the American people we have to choose between being a nation of immigrants or a nation of laws. And the fact is, we don't have to make that choice. We can be both."
After years of prodding Congress to enact immigration reform, Obama took matters into his own hands in 2014, issuing directives protecting two types of illegal immigrants: those brought to the United States as children and those who are parents to U.S.-born citizens.
"About 3.5 million people could claim the benefits of the president's unlawful executive action, receiving work permits, driver's licenses, Social Security numbers," Cornyn said. "That is not the kind of decision the Constitution gives to a single political actor, even if he is the president of the United States."
Democratic Senator Richard Durbin personalized the issue.
"I just wish some of the haters, some of the people who want to turn on these young people [protected from deportation], would meet them," he said. "They don't view themselves as Mexicans or Koreans; they view themselves as Americans.
"And the question is: How do we view them? Do we view them as an asset to America? Or do we view them as a problem? A problem that should be thrown away and deported."
‘Fix our system’
People from both sides of Obama's immigration orders illustrated their arguments with examples from their home states.
Durbin paid tribute to a young musical prodigy who was brought illegally to the United States as a child. Republican Senator Joni Ernst mourned a recent college graduate killed by an undocumented immigrant who was driving drunk and without a license.
"This tragedy further underscores the administration's failed immigration enforcement priorities," Ernst said. "It is a privilege to live in this country, and anyone who comes here illegally and harms our citizens should, without question, constitute a priority for removal."
Democrats argue that there would be no need for executive orders if Congress passed a long-awaited overhaul of America's oft-lambasted immigration system.
"Instead of litigating the president's actions, Republicans should work to fix our immigration system here in Congress," Reid said. "By working with Democrats to pass immigration reform, they would render the president's executive actions unnecessary."
Republicans counter that legislative inaction does not constitute license for an executive power grab. Cornyn noted that Americans elected a Republican-led Congress knowing the party's disposition on myriad issues, including immigration.
"This president will not be stopped by the voters,” Cornyn said. “ [Obama] said, ‘I don't care what the voters think. I don't care what the American people think. I don't care what the Constitution says. I don't care what Congress says. I'm going to do it the way I want to do it.’”
"This was a Constitutional scorched-earth tactic," the senator added.
Many court-watchers are predicting a 4-4 split decision vote by the Supreme Court on the immigration case, which would mean that an appellate decision against the administration would stand and the executive order would be voided.
The high court has been operating one justice short since the death of Antonin Scalia in February. Obama's nominee to fill the vacancy has been blocked by Senate Republicans, who say Obama's successor should make the selection in 2017.