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A deadlocked Supreme Court has real consequences for 4 million people

A deadlocked Supreme Court has real consequences for 4 million people
Protestors address the Supreme Court's tie vote that blocks the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program at the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal via Associated Press)

Here is a real-world consequence of the Senate Republican leadership's refusal to consider President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court: the dashed hopes of more than 4 million immigrants living in fear of deportation.

Thanks to yet another 4-4 deadlock among the justices Thursday, Obama's "Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents" will still not go into effect, and the immigrants who would have been protected by it will not, at least for the moment, be permitted to remain in the United States legally. The court's nondecision doesn't kill the program — it still could take effect if the administration prevails, as we hope it will, in court. But that could be years away.

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So a reasonable step by the president toward trying to unscramble the nation's immigration debacle remains blocked. And the parents of U.S. citizens remain in the shadows, fearful of discovery and deportation and unable to work in the aboveground economy.

It's impossible to say with certainty how Justice Antonin Scalia would have ruled in this case, though the safe bet is that his vote would have have gone against the Obama administration.  So with Scalia alive we'd still likely be in the same legal place waiting for the lawsuit to proceed. But we'd at least have some insight into the court's thinking on the real issue at play here, which is whether the president overstepped his authority in trying to humanely enforce the nation's immigration laws.

That's an important issue, especially since Republican leaders in the House have refused to act on legislation that would reform the nation's broken immigration system. That inaction has frozen in place a system regarded across the political spectrum as, at best, dysfunctional. As a result, there are more than 11 million people living (and most of them working) in the country without legal status. The right-wing argument that they all should be deported is both inhumane and impossible to achieve without spending hundreds of billions of dollars expanding the Department of Homeland Security and heavily damaging industries that have come to rely on immigrant labor.

Obama's plan to allow the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents some breathing room — provided they have been here at least five years and have no legal entanglement that would make them ineligible — is a sensible stop-gap approach. But while we wait for it to work its way through the courts, we have a Republican-led House that won't address immigration reform, a Republican-led Senate that has paralyzed a divided Supreme Court, and a Republican presidential candidate who wants to deport 11 million people (among other outlandish ideas). Elections matter.

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