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Obama answers immigration ruling with vow to fight courts and Congress

Despite setback on immigration, Obama predicts the courts will ultimately uphold his actions as lawful

The Obama administration promised Tuesday to fight against opposition from both the courts and Congress to keep in place its expansive new programs to shield millions of immigrants from deportation, a key piece of the president's effort to shape his legacy in his final years in office.

A federal judge in Texas issued an order late Monday that temporarily blocked the administration from putting into effect President Obama's executive actions on immigration. The ruling touched off a day of cheering by Republicans, logistical and legal scrambling in the White House and vigorous efforts by advocates around the country to reassure potential applicants that they shouldn't give up.

The administration said it would swiftly appeal the order, which came less than 48 hours before immigration officials were scheduled to begin accepting applications for the first of the programs to defer deportation.

Despite that setback, the president predicted that courts would ultimately uphold his efforts as lawful.

"The law is on our side and history is on our side," Obama told reporters in the Oval Office. "This is not the first time where a lower court judge has blocked something, or attempted to block something, that is ultimately going to be lawful. And I'm confident that it is well within my authority."

For now, though, his administration put on hold plans to start its expansion Wednesday of the 2012 program that has shielded from deportation nearly 600,000 young people, so-called Dreamers, and a much larger effort to defer action on deportations that could apply to about 4 million adults living in the U.S. illegally.

The broader initiative had been set to begin in May, and its future is uncertain for those who hoped to qualify for it.

"We're asking people to not be fearful or be discouraged. We believe it will be overturned," said Larry Kleinman, a co-chair of a national effort by advocacy groups to prepare for the program's rollout.

Saying he was tired of waiting for Republicans to fix a broken immigration system, Obama announced in November that he would use his executive authority to protect millions of immigrants from the threat of being deported.

The largest piece of his plan would be open to immigrants who've lived here for five years, have no serious crimes on their records and are parents of legal residents.

He was sued over his executive action in a case eventually joined by 26 states, most led by Republicans.

U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen issued an injunction on the grounds that the states had a strong argument that the administration had not followed correct procedures in establishing the program. A full trial would be needed to resolve the case, Hanen said, and his order was intended to preserve the status quo until that could take place.

Hanen, an appointee of President George W. Bush who has taken a hard line on enforcement in other immigration cases, said the Obama administration had overstepped its authority in establishing the program, which he says would grant "legal presence and benefits to otherwise removable aliens."

Administration lawyers have not decided whether to ask an appeals court for an emergency stay of Hanen's order, according to Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Temporarily at least, the ruling has complicated the administration's efforts to get ready to handle millions of applications without bogging down the rest of the system.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which is to oversee the applications, has leased a new processing center and has begun preparing to hire hundreds of workers. The agency had already posted a list of questions and detailed answers on its website about the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; it removed the Web page Tuesday afternoon.

Hanen said that if the government were to begin to allow immigrants to stay in the country while the court case proceeded, "the genie would be impossible to put back into the bottle." He added that he agreed with the plaintiffs that legalizing the presence of millions of people would be a "virtually irreversible" action.

Some experts in immigration law predicted Hanen's opinion would be overturned.

"The federal courts have been very deferential to the executive branch on immigration issues," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor at Cornell Law School. Though the question might ultimately end up before the Supreme Court, he said he expected that the justices would wait to weigh in until lower courts had heard the constitutional issues.

Republicans in Congress said the ruling vindicated their opposition to the immigration programs, and leaders gave no indication that they might change course.

In a strategy largely pushed by conservatives who are against illegal immigration, Republicans are attempting to use Homeland Security Department funding as leverage to stop the administration's effort to protect millions from deportation.

But a House measure to fund the agency only on the condition that it not implement the programs has stalled in the Senate in the face of united Democratic opposition.

Without a resolution by Feb. 28, many department employees would be furloughed while others would be forced to work without pay.

Though some Republicans privately say they fear a shutdown of the department would be a political disaster for the party, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday" that he was "certainly" prepared to let that happen if the Senate couldn't pass the House bill.

One Republican leadership aide, granted anonymity to discuss the situation candidly, said the court order would probably lead members of the party to feel they "are doing the right thing" by seeking to block the policy, and hoped it would force Senate Democrats to reconsider.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has scheduled a fourth procedural vote on the House bill when the Senate returns to Washington on Monday.

The ruling could signal to Republicans that their best chances of undoing the president's actions are through the courts, giving lawmakers cover to advance a spending bill without any immigration-related provisions.

But one Republican aide noted that the Texas judge's ruling could be reversed before lawmakers return from their weeklong recess this week, which would leave Republicans exactly where they started when they left.

Democrats reiterated Tuesday that they would remain firmly against the House bill, and Obama, who has said he held off on his action until it became clear that Congress could not find a way to overhaul the immigration system, urged lawmakers to try again to find a broader solution.

"With a new Congress, my hope has been that they now get serious in solving the problem," he said. "Instead what we've had is a series of votes to kick out young people who have grown up here and everybody recognizes are part of our community, and threats to defund the Department of Homeland Security."

Advocates who work with immigrants worried that the judge's decision could confuse and frighten applicants who are already nervous identifying themselves to immigration authorities.

"People just need to sit tight and remain confident that this program is something that will ultimately prevail," said Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.

Across the country, immigrants who are eligible were wondering how to proceed.

"I have no idea what I'm going to do yet," said Rocio Andiola of Mesa, Ariz. "I didn't know how to react."

Andiola, 35, who came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico, is eligible for deferred action on possible deportation, as is her husband, as they have two American-born sons, ages 13 and 15. She has been gathering documents required to apply.

"We've been doing things right — paying taxes and stuff," she said. "We deserve an opportunity to live here."

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

michael.memoli@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano in Washington, Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston, Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City and Michael Muskal, Kate Linthicum and Christine Mai-Duc in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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