In a blow to undocumented people across the United States, a federal appeals court on Tuesday obstructed an initiative of President Barack Obama that could have deferred roughly four million deportations.
Human rights advocates bemoaned the ruling, even as they insisted that Obama's program already didn't go far enough.
"Over and over again, we see political games played with the lives of our community," said Edna Monroy of California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance in a press statement following the court's decision. "Millions of undocumented immigrants are pushing for the opportunity to be treated with dignity and respect as human beings. But meanwhile, the enforcement apparatus is still at work."
In the two-to-one ruling, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans blocked the Obama administration's request to remove an injunction placed by a lower court on an executive order put forth by the president in November amid massive protests and direct actions by immigrant justice advocates.
The proposal created a new program for undocumented people who immigrated to the U.S. as children or who are parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents to receive work permits—but not U.S. citizenship, green cards, or coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The initiative was met with mixed reactions from impacted communities, with many expressing concerns over the president's vow to increase policing and incarceration of alleged "criminals" and people who recently crossed into the United States.
"Millions of undocumented immigrants are pushing for the opportunity to be treated with dignity and respect as human beings. But meanwhile, the enforcement apparatus is still at work."
—Edna Monroy, California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance
But immediately after Obama announced the program, the U.S. government was sued by 26 states on charges that the proposal was unconstitutional. In February, a U.S. district judge ordered that the program be put on hold until the case is resolved.
In statements before the 5th Circuit, the Obama administration argued that states do not have legal justification for suing the federal government over policies that impact national borders.
But the appeals court upheld the lower court's ruling on Tuesday, saying that the states did have sufficient ground to challenge the initiative. The court also rejected an argument from the administration that the injunction should only apply to the states that levied the suit. New York Times reporter Julia Preston predicts that the Obama administration will next turn to the Supreme Court in a bid to move the program forward.
But while the legal battle continues, the undocumented people whose lives and family unification are on the line will see no reprieve.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," said Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, in a statement on Tuesday. "As an organization committed to the health and rights of immigrant Latinas and their families, we are deeply disappointed with today’s decision from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. With every day that the president’s reforms are blocked from implementation, thousands — potentially millions — of immigrant women and families are at risk of deportation and family separation."
But many point out that there is still far more that can be done by a president who has overseen a record-high level of deportations.
"The deferred-action programs are just one tool among many that Obama can use to turn his record on deportation around and end the devastation of immigrant families," wrote Carlos Garcia, executive director of Puente Arizona, in an op-ed published last month. "As his affirmative relief faces an unknown timeline in the courts, there were 7 million immigrants who didn’t qualify for relief in the first place. Obama must do more to demonstrate his commitment to immigrant communities. He can start by ending the experiment of police-ICE collaboration."
Furthermore, the faltering of Obama's initiative is not stopping his administration from implementing its punitive aspects, including an escalation in home raids.
"The courts may be holding up deferred action but nothing is holding the President back from ending the detention system, starting with trans and queer/lesbian/gay/bi detainees that ICE has proven unable and unwilling to keep safe," said Atlanta, Georgia-based Paulina Hernandez of Southerners on New Ground. "It was people power that moved President Obama to act and we will not stop until we have Not 1 More Deportation!"