WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama criticized both the Supreme Court’s immigration ruling and Republicans in Congress for failing to meet with his nomination for the ninth justice Thursday.
The nation’s highest court was unable to break a 4-4 deadlock on Obama’s immigration plan that sought to shield millions living in the U.S. illegally from deportation. The justices’ one-sentence opinion on Thursday effectively kills the plan for the rest of Obama’s presidency.
Obama said the court’s ruling sets the system back and “takes us further from the country we aspire to be.”
Despite the ruling, Obama said comprehensive immigration reform is a question of “if,” not “when,” for the nation.
Obama said America has been a refuge for the world for more than two centuries. He said it’s a diverse and inclusive nation because it’s a nation of immigrants.
Obama said his administration will continue focusing its limited enforcement resources on people who have committed a crime and that deportation for long-term immigrants who aren’t criminals will remain a low priority.
Still, Obama said the deadlock is frustrating for immigrants who want to work and contribute to the economy. He said it’s “heartbreaking” for them.
The president seemed disappointed at the court’s ruling, but was furious with Republicans in Congress, who he said have jeopardized critical issues facing the nation because they refuse to confirm Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
“America should not let it stand,” Obama said of the Republicans’ failure to act.
The president said his immigration actions can’t go forward until the court has a ninth justice to break the tie.
Obama also alluded to Republican Donald Trump’s call for building a border wall with Mexico. Obama said the U.S. doesn’t need to wall itself off and that immigration isn’t something to fear.
People who would have benefited from the immigration programs face no imminent threat of deportation because Congress has provided money to deal with only a small percentage of people who live in the country illegally, and the president retains ample discretion to decide whom to deport.
A tie vote sets no national precedent but leaves in place the ruling by the lower court. In this case, the federal appeals court in New Orleans said the Obama administration lacked the authority to shield up to 4 million immigrants from deportation and make them eligible for work permits without approval from Congress.
Texas led 26 Republican-dominated states in challenging the program Obama announced in November 2014. Congressional Republicans also backed the states’ lawsuit.
The Obama administration announced the programs — protections for parents of children who are in the country legally and an expansion of the program that benefits people who were brought to this country as children — in November 2014. Obama decided to move forward after Republicans won control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections, and the chances for an immigration overhaul, already remote, were further diminished.
The Senate had passed a broad immigration bill with Democratic and Republican support in 2013, but the measure went nowhere in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.
The states quickly went to court to block the Obama initiatives. Their lawsuit was heard by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas. Hanen previously had criticized the administration for lax immigration enforcement.
Hanen sided with the states, blocking the programs from taking effect. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled for the states, and the Justice Department rushed an appeal to the high court so that it could be heard this term.
A nine-justice court agreed to hear the case in January, but by the time of the arguments in late April, Justice Antonin Scalia had died. That left eight justices to decide the case, and the court presumably split along liberal and conservative lines, although the court did not say how each justice voted.
Had Scalia still been alive, though, he almost certainly would have voted with his fellow conservatives to form a majority in favor of the states.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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