President Obama's plans to protect millions of immigrants from deportation were frozen on Tuesday while his administration scrambled to appeal an order by a federal judge in Texas temporarily halting the program.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that the Obama administration has put off for now the first step in implementing the program, expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative that has granted a temporary reprieve from deportation for nearly 600,000 young people. The administration had been scheduled to begin accepting applications for the expansion Wednesday.
Johnson said the administration was also putting on hold plans for a much larger program, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, which could apply to around 4 million adult immigrants.
"The Department of Justice will appeal that temporary injunction," Johnson said in a statement, referring to the judge's order. "In the meantime, we recognize we must comply with it. We fully expect to ultimately prevail in the courts, and we will be prepared to implement DAPA and expanded DACA once we do."
Saying he was tired of waiting for Republicans to fix a broken immigration system, President Obama announced in November that he would use his executive authority to protect millions of immigrants from the threat of being deported. Texas and 25 other states, mostly controlled by Republican governors, went to court to block its implementation.
Late Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen in Texas issued an order siding with those states and blocking the plan for now. The White House has said it will appeal, and likely will request an emergency stay of Hanen's decision at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
"The DHS secretary is not just rewriting the laws," Hanen wrote in a 123-page opinion. "He is creating them from scratch."
"The genie would be impossible to put back into the bottle," he wrote, adding that he agreed with the states that legalizing the presence of millions of people is a "virtually irreversible" action.
Hanen didn't decide the constitutional issues raised by the case, but issued the injunction on grounds that the states that challenged Obama's action had a strong argument that the administration had not followed correct procedures in setting up the program. A full trial would be needed to resolve the case, he said, and the injunction would preserve the status quo until that could take place.
In a statement released early Tuesday morning, the White House said Obama's November actions are within the president's legal authority. The White House argued that the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress have said federal officials can establish priorities in enforcing immigration laws.
Obama's actions have drawn a fierce countercharge from Republicans in Congress. In a strategy largely pushed by conservatives who oppose illegal immigration, Republicans are attempting to use funding for the Department of Homeland Security as leverage to stop the policy from taking effect. But a House measure to fund the sprawling department on the condition that it not implement the deferred deportation 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.
On Tuesday, Republican congressional leaders gave no indication that they might swerve from that course because of the court ruling.
Though some privately fear such a departmental shutdown would be a political disaster for the party, House Speaker John A. Boehner said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday" that he was "certainly" prepared to see that happen if the Senate couldn't pass the House bill.
On Tuesday, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued similar statements on the court's ruling seeking to keep pressure on Democrats to break the impasse.
"Senate Democrats -- especially those who've voiced opposition to the president's executive overreach -- should end their partisan filibuster of Department of Homeland Security funding," McConnell said.
The ruling could signal to Republicans that the best chances of undoing the president's actions are through the courts, giving leaders cover to advance a spending bill without any immigration-related provisions. But one Republican aide said the Texas judge's ruling could be reversed before lawmakers return from being in recess this week, which would leave them exactly where they started when they left.
Another leadership aide, who like the first was granted anonymity to discuss the situation candidly, said the ruling would likely lead members to feel they "are doing the right thing" by seeking to block the policy, and hoped it would shift political pressure enough to force some Democrats to reconsider blocking the bill in the Senate. McConnell has scheduled a fourth procedural vote on the House bill when the Senate returns next Monday.
Democrats reiterated Tuesday that they would remain firmly against the House bill.
"Senate Democrats have a simple solution for getting out of this jam: Take up and pass a clean bill to fund Homeland Security, then move on to a robust debate on immigration legislation," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement. "Democrats' offer to first fund Homeland Security and then debate immigration stands. All Republicans have to do is say yes."
Groups that represent immigrants in the U.S. illegally condemned the Texas ruling and said it would only delay what they consider to be important actions by the Obama administration to deal with the complex issues of overhauling the immigration system.
"We disagree with the court's decision and believe a higher court will reaffirm the legitimacy of administrative relief, siding with countless legal scholars that the president was well within his authority to act," said Janet Murguía, president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza, a leading advocacy group.
Obama's executive actions "are among the only common-sense solutions on immigration that have emerged in the last two decades. Detractors of these programs may try to paint this as a fight with the president, but make no mistake: Attempts to dismantle these programs are attacks on American families. They are attacks on U.S. citizen spouses and children who are seeing their families torn apart because some of our lawmakers refuse to do what is necessary to fix our immigration system," Murguía said.
The government of Mexico, whose citizens make up the single largest group of people who cross the border illegally, said it regretted the district court decision.
The Mexican government, however, has been careful not to appear to be interfering in U.S. immigration policy.
"We reiterate that these programs mean just migratory relief for millions of families and could make possible contributions by Mexican migrants to the U.S. economy and society," the Mexican Foreign Relations Ministry said in a statement.
"The Foreign Ministry calls on the Mexican community to remain informed about the development of the judicial-review process through official sources," the statement added, cautioning Mexican nationals against possible fraudulent efforts by unscrupulous immigration brokers.
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted praise for the judge's order, saying it "stops the president's overreach in its tracks."
"We live in a nation governed by a system of checks and balances, and the president's attempt to bypass the will of the American people was successfully checked today," Abbott wrote.