The Supreme Court’s one-sentence non-ruling in the most important immigration case of the year landed Thursday with an enormous impact. The 4–4 deadlock effectively killed President Obama’s deportation-deferral program for the rest of his presidency. In the immediate, the estimated 4 million undocumented immigrants who would have benefited from the initiative are returned to their precarious lives. In the short term, the Supreme Court’s result revives a longstanding debate about where immigration advocates ought to pivot—to return the focus to a full congressional overhaul of the system or keep pushing for more creative executive action to stop deportations.
The past eight years have shown that Latino and immigrant voting power, which helped propel Obama to victory and reelection, does not on its own determine immigration policy. Congress and the Republican Party, now the Party of Trump, have made a weapon out of doing nothing. That’s why, the Court’s ruling notwithstanding, congressional politics are still not at the top of all immigrant advocates’ priority list. They remain focused on demanding that Obama put a moratorium on deportations.
On Monday, dozens of activists blocked the street in front of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Atlanta Field Office to echo these calls for a moratorium on deportations, chanting, “Not one more deportation! ICE ICE ICE! Dismantle ICE!” Activists with the #Not1More deportation coalition have pledged more actions later this week.
“With the courts also taken over by the party politics that have ruled the immigration issue for more than a decade, President Obama has a responsibility to pursue alternatives to make his policies more humane,” said Marisa Franco, director of Mijente, which coordinates the #Not1More campaign. “The way to keep communities from living in fear is to put a freeze on deportations.”
“Even with DAPA, only a fraction of us [undocumented immigrants] would be protected,” said Tania Unzueta, legal and policy director for Mijente. In light of the Obama administration’s stepped up raids, its sprawling immigrant detention system, and the possibility of a Trump presidency, Obama ought to halt all deportations for now, the group argues.
Obama seemed to answer exactly that call last Thursday. “I don’t anticipate that there are additional executive actions we can take,” Obama said while responding to the Supreme Court decision. “We’ve butted up about as far as we can on this particular topic.”
Thursday’s ruling marks the denouement of Obama’s immigration leadership. It has been a crushing eight years, defined by early and ultimately unfulfilled promises to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and by Obama’s misguided attempt to use record-breaking deportations as proof of his good-faith efforts to meet Republicans in the middle. Only in recent years did he change tack, adopting his sweeping but short-term executive actions to protect select groups of undocumented immigrants. His first executive action Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, announced in 2012, benefited roughly 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. It is still in place, and remains untouched by the current legal battles. The program in legal jeopardy now, Obama’s 2014 initiative called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Permanent Residents (DAPA), would have granted two-year protection from deportation and work permits to undocumented parents of US citizen or green card–holding children who cleared a host of other hurdles. One could argue that these programs were his attempt to ameliorate the devastation of the deportation machine he’s created.