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Deadlocked Supreme Court Fails To Revive Obama's Immigration Plan


In the United States, the Supreme Court has voted in a tie yesterday to block the Obama administration's controversial attempt to help millions of unauthorized immigrant families. The case goes back to the court of a conservative south Texas federal judge where it's expected to languish until President Obama's term is up. As NPR's John Burnett reports, immigration observers say it is not the end of the road.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Karina was at her job at a national hotel chain cleaning breakfast tables when she saw the news break on CNN. Supreme Court ties 4-4 on Obama's executive action. Though her English is poor, she understood immediately what had happened.

KARINA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "I was very sad. My family had wanted to do many things," she says. "We hoped we could travel legally without fear, find better work and get driver's licenses." The Supreme Court deadlock effectively derails Obama's 2014 executive action. It would have affected certain unauthorized immigrant parents, like Karina and her husband, who have U.S. citizen children and have been in the United States continuously since 2010.

Those who qualified would have the opportunity to get temporary work permits and be protected from deportation. Appearing yesterday, the president said the news is heartbreaking for immigrants who wanted to contribute to this country. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton led the charge alongside 25 other states that are opposed to the program. In a statement, Paxton said the high court's decision is a major setback to President Obama's attempts to expand executive power.

Karina asked that her last name not be used because she and her husband, who works on a cement crew, live in San Marcos, Texas, illegally. Three of her four children are U.S. citizens. She says Thursday was a bad day, but she hasn't lost all hope.

KARINA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "We had gotten together our Mexican passports, bills, income tax returns, everything to prove we'd been here since 2001 and qualify for the program. I think if Hillary wins, maybe she'll do something for us and help us get out of the shadows." Immigrant advocates agree if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the White House and nominates a ninth Supreme Court justice, the program could have a new life. If Republican Donald Trump wins, his Supreme Court majority would presumably take a harder line on benefits for immigrants. Melissa Montes (ph) says she thinks it's encouraging that four justices voted in favor of Obama's deferred action program. She's co-director of the Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic at Loyola University in Los Angeles.

MELISSA MONTES: Specifically, what's important to remind people is that the decision today doesn't set any sort of precedent. You know, this issue will be brought the Supreme Court again in the future. So we're hoping that it will be a positive impact.

BURNETT: Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in a statement lamented the court ruling but reassured that his agents are only rounding up unauthorized immigrants who are convicted criminals or recent arrivals at the border. In other words, they're not targeting people like Karina, the Texas hotel worker. While Thursday's decision is a victory for immigration hawks, it may have almost no measurable effect.

MARK KRIKORIAN: None of these people are going to be deported because Obama has said he's not going to deport.

BURNETT: Mark Krikorian is director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors more restrictions on immigration.

KRIKORIAN: In a sense the stakes were relatively low.

BURNETT: Low stakes in terms of the threat of forced return but high stakes in that millions of undocumented workers saw this as their only opportunity in many years to get a driver's license and a Social Security card. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.