The raging political fight over immigration comes to the Supreme Court on Monday in a dispute that could affect millions of people who are in the United States illegally.
The court is weighing the fate of Obama administration programs that could shield roughly 4 million people from deportation and grant them the legal right to hold a job.
Among them is Teresa Garcia of suburban Seattle, who has spent 14 years in the United States illegally after staying beyond the expiration of her tourist visa in 2002.
She’s already gotten much of what she wanted when she chose not to return to her native Mexico. Her two sons are benefiting from an earlier effort that applies to people who were brought here illegally as children. Garcia’s 11-year-old daughter is an American citizen.
“That's why I come, for the opportunity for the children and because it is much safer here,” the 45-year-old Garcia said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Now, she would like the same for herself and her husband, a trained accountant who works construction jobs. Neither can work legally.
“To have a Social Security number, that means for me to have a better future. When I say better future, we are struggling with the little amount of money my husband is getting for the whole family. It makes for stress every day. We struggle to pay for everything,” Garcia said.
The programs announced by President Barack Obama in November 2014 would apply to parents whose children are citizens or are living in the country legally. Eligibility also would be expanded for the president’s 2012 effort that helped Garcia’s sons. More than 700,000 people have taken advantage of that earlier program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The new program for parents and the expanded program for children could reach as many as 4 million people, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Texas and 25 other states sued to block the new initiatives soon after they were announced, and lower courts have ruled in their favor. The programs have never taken effect.
The states, joined by congressional Republicans, argue that Obama doesn’t have the power to effectively change immigration law. When he announced the measures 17 months ago, Obama said he was acting under his own authority because Congress had failed to overhaul the immigration system. The Senate had passed legislation on a bipartisan vote, but House Republicans refused to put the matter to a vote.
“Fundamentally, we don’t think the president has the statutory or constitutional authority to issue these executive actions,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
House Republicans told the court that Obama is claiming the power “to decree that millions of individuals may live, work and receive benefits in this country even though federal statutes plainly prohibit them from doing so.”
The administration and immigration advocates say the immigration orders are neither unprecedented nor even unusual. Rather, they say, Obama’s programs build on past efforts by Democratic and Republican administrations to use discretion in deciding whom to deport.
The court’s last major immigration decision, the 2012 case Arizona v. U.S., lends some support to this view.
“A principal feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials. Federal officials, as an initial matter, must decide whether it makes sense to pursue removal at all,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy. “Discretion in the enforcement of immigration law embraces immediate human concerns. Unauthorized workers trying to support their families, for example, likely pose less danger than alien smugglers or aliens who commit a serious crime.”
The administration and its supporters said the challenged programs do not offer blanket protection, but depend on case-by-case reviews. The protection from deportation also would be temporary, for three years.
“It's not permanent status, not a green card, not a path to citizenship. It doesn’t get you a ticket into a voting booth. At best, it's a tolerated presence,” said Angela Maria Kelley, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress.
The programs also could be revoked by the next president, as the Republican contenders have promised. That might leave people who have provided the government with information about themselves in greater peril of being deported.
Immigration advocates acknowledged that some people might not be willing to raise their hands until they know the outcome of the election.
The Supreme Court case might not even address the issue of executive authority if the justices determine that Texas and the other states don't have the right to challenge it in federal court. Such a resolution, which could attract support from both liberal and conservative justices, could enable the court to sidestep the potentially divisive details over immigration and avoid a 4-4 tie following Justice Antonin Scalia's death in February.
A decision in favor of the administration would allow the programs to take effect in the waning months of Obama's presidency. A loss or even a tie vote would block them for the foreseeable future.
Garcia said she is eager to apply for the relief Obama offers if it’s made available.
She said she volunteers in the local schools teaching Spanish to children, providing translation for interactions between parents and the schools and working on the school district’s strategic planning effort. But she has had to turn down offers of a paying job with the school system.
Armed with the Social Security number she so desires, Garcia said, "I would work starting right now."
A decision in U.S. v. Texas, 15-674, is expected by late June.