The U.S. Supreme Court appeared closely divided on Monday as it weighed whether to revive President Barack Obama’s plan to spare from deportation roughly 4 million immigrants in the country illegally, raising the possibility of a 4-4 deadlock that would block the program.
Based on questions asked during the 90-minute oral argument in a case that tests the limits of presidential powers, the court’s four liberal justices seemed poised to back Obama while the four conservatives were more skeptical.
The court is evenly divided with four liberals and four conservatives following the February death of conservative Antonin Scalia. That raises the possibility of a 4-4 split that would leave in place a 2015 lower-court ruling that threw out the president’s executive action that bypassed the Republican-led Congress.
If the court is to avoid a 4-4 split, Chief Justice John Roberts could be the most likely member of the conservative bloc to join the liberals in voting to reinstate the program. One possible compromise outcome would be that the court could uphold Obama’s plan while leaving some legal questions unresolved, including whether the government can provide work authorization to eligible applicants.
The case, one of the biggest of the court’s current term ending in June, pits Obama against 26 states led by Texas that filed suit to block his immigration plan.
Roberts seemed to doubt the Obama administration’s argument that Texas lacked the legal “standing” to launch the challenge. The administration had argued that the state would not be hurt by Obama’s plan.
Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who frequently casts the deciding vote in close cases, expressed concern that the administration had exceeded its authority by having the executive branch set immigration policy rather than carry out laws passed by Congress.
Obama’s plan was tailored to let roughly 4 million people – those who have lived illegally in the United States at least since 2010, have no criminal record and have children who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents – get into a program that shields them from deportation and supplies work permits.
On a sunny spring day in the U.S. capital, more than a thousand demonstrators, most supporting Obama’s action, gathered outside the white marble courthouse. The lively music of a mariachi band and chants of “We’re home and here to stay, undocumented and unafraid,” filled the air.
Zaira Garcia, 23, a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, recalled on the court’s front steps how her Mexican father’s employers would sometimes withhold pay because they knew he was not in the country legally.
“It’s inhumane, the way people who are undocumented can be taken advantage of,” Garcia said.
John Moorefield, 81, of Statesville, North Carolina, participated in a rally organized by the conservative Tea Party Patriots group.
“They need to come here legally,” Moorefield said of illegal immigrants. “Why should I pay taxes to bring someone here who’s not legal? They broke the law. I didn’t.”
OBAMA’S PLAN BLOCKED
Obama took the action after House of Representatives Republicans killed bipartisan legislation, billed as the biggest overhaul of U.S. immigration laws in decades and providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, that was passed by the Senate in 2013.
Obama’s program is called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA).
Shortly before the plan was to take effect last year, a federal judge in Texas blocked it after the Republican-governed states filed suit against the Democratic president’s executive action. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in November.
The Supreme Court’s ruling is due by the end of June.
Obama’s action arose from frustration within the White House and the immigrant community about a lack of action in politically polarized Washington to address the status of people, mostly Hispanics, living in the United States illegally.
The court will decide the case at a time when immigration has become a contentious issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, with leading Republican candidates calling for all of the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally to be deported.
Obama, who has seen many of his major legislative initiatives stifled by Republican lawmakers, has drawn Republican ire with his use of executive action to get around Congress on immigration policy and other matters including gun control and healthcare.
On the immigration action, the states contend Obama exceeded the powers granted to him by the Constitution by usurping the authority of Congress.
The Obama administration called Obama’s action mere guidance to federal immigration authorities on how to exercise discretion given by Congress on enforcing immigration laws.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Clarece Polke and Robert Iafolla; Editing by Will Dunham)