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Supreme Court Tie Blocks Obama Immigration Actions


The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on two major cases today. One upholds the affirmative action program at the University of Texas. In a few minutes we'll hear from the university's president. The other is a blow to President Obama's executive action on immigration, and NPR's Scott Horsley has that.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It wasn't really a decision at all. The shorthanded court deadlocked four to four. But that leaves in place a lower court's ruling that blocks the president from using his executive powers to shield millions of immigrants living in the country illegally from deportation. Critics had accused Obama of overstepping his authority. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan was cheered to see the president reined in.


PAUL RYAN: This is a win for the Constitution. It's a win for Congress, and it's a win in our fight to restore the separation of powers. Presidents don't write laws. Congress writes laws.

HORSLEY: At the White House today, Obama said he'd always wanted Congress to take the lead on immigration. He says he only resorted to executive action after a bipartisan Senate bill hit a brick wall in the House.


BARACK OBAMA: Unfortunately Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to allow a simple yes or no vote on that bill. So I was left with little choice but to take steps within my existing authority to make our immigration system smarter, fairer and more just.

HORSLEY: In late 2014, the administration issued new enforcement guidelines that would have lifted the threat of deportation from some 4 million immigrants, mostly parents of U.S. citizens and green card holders. Texas and about two dozen other states quickly sued to challenge the administration's move. Ken Paxton is the Texas attorney general.

KEN PAXTON: We don't want to be in a position where any president can just unilaterally change law.

HORSLEY: A federal judge in Texas and a conservative appeals court in Louisiana agreed, putting the administration's action on hold. And with today's tie vote in the U.S. Supreme Court, that's where things will stay for now.

The four-four deadlock leaves the question of presidential power unresolved. Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman says that's an accident of the court being one justice short and the Senate sitting on the president's nominee.

NOAH FELDMAN: Had Justice Scalia lived, it would have gone against the president. Had Merrick Garland been confirmed, it probably would have gone for the president. So we should remind ourselves that sometimes when it comes to Supreme Court opinion, there's a lot of luck involved.

HORSLEY: If today's high court ruling leaves legal scholars with unanswered questions, advocates say it leaves millions of immigrants in shadowy limbo.

CECILLIA WANG: It's really a non-decision that has very serious teeth.

HORSLEY: Cecillia Wang of the ACLU says while there's little threat of stepped-up immigration enforcement or late-night knocks at the door, millions of immigrants living in the country illegally will not get the relief that would have come with an official reprieve from deportation.

WANG: We have 11 million people working and paying taxes and who are contributing. What do we do when our statutes don't deal with that reality?

HORSLEY: Immigration will continue to play a key role in the political arena. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both issued statements today saying the decision underscores the high stakes in the November presidential election.

Clinton has promised to go further than the Obama administration in protecting immigrants, while Trump has promised mass deportations and a new wall along the U.S. southern border. In his White House news conference today, Obama ridiculed Trump's proposal as a fantasy.


OBAMA: We don't have to wall ourselves off from those who may not look like us right now or pray like we do or have a different last name because being an American is about something more than that.

HORSLEY: Obama says Americans are going to have to make a decision in November about what we care about and who we are. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.