Supreme Court split decision on President Obama's immigration plan puts millions in limbo

Posted at 7:21 PM, Jun 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-24 12:37:04-04

The Supreme Court of the United States is deadlocked over President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration.

The court split 4-4 on a lower court ruling that said Obama exceeded his executive authority by issuing an immigration policy to protect people in the country illegally.  The 2014 program was put on hold by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in late 2015 and the SCOTUS split effectively upholds the lower court's decision - for now.

The president's policy would have protected roughly four million undocumented immigrants - mostly parents of kids legally in the U.S. - from deportation.  In reality, however, the court's decision is unlikely to chance anything for the people who would have qualified for the president's program.  They remain in limbo and vulnerable but are unlikely to be deported due to their low priority status with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"They don't have a path to citizenship and it wouldn't of had a path to citizenship under these new plans.  However, they don't have a path to have their immigration status or their deportation deferred. Many of them don't have a path toward legally working," said Valley immigration attorney Kyle Hallstrom, Hallstrom Law firm.

While Obama's critics are hailing the decision a victory, SCOTUS experts said the split decision does not set a precedent and therefore kicks the can down the road for later discussion.

Michael Huston, an Arizona native and Washington D.C. attorney who clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts, said the justices likely battled behind the scenes to avoid this decision that leaves the discussion open.

"I imagine justices spent several months working to see if there was a solution that would allow them to avoid a tie. Remember, this case was heard several months ago and yet they did not immediately issue the decision and just say it was deadlocked," said Huston.  "Whether that program goes into effect or not I think really will be decided by the outcome of the presidential election."

Huston said the next president could end up issuing new executive action (or removing Obama's executive order) that would decide the issue.  The new president will also likely choose the replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who would have been the tie-breaking vote.   There's also a chance the Supreme Court could once again take up this case after the senate has confirmed Scalia's replacement.

The Supreme Court could also end up considering the case again once the new senate confirms a replacement nominee for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who would have been the tie-breaking vote.

Meantime, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake is happy about the court’s decision.  But he also said it puts pressure on Congress to push for an immigration bill after the election.

“We’ve gone far too long, really for years.  Over a decade I’ve been introducing legislation, and Senator (John) McCain has as well, and it'll pass one body but not the other and we just can't get it to the president's desk and that needs to change,” said Flake, speaking from Washington D.C. Thursday.