Decision by federal judge in Texas gives coalition of 26 states time to pursue lawsuit aimed at stopping president’s executive action on immigration
Barack Obama meets young immigrants in the Oval Office of the White House
President Obama meets six young immigrants who would be subject to eventual deportation under a bill passed by the House. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP
A plan to shield millions of people from deportation from the US was frozen on Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security, whose chief stalled the program after a federal judge in Texas ordered its halt late Monday night.
Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, said that the border control agency has suspended its plan to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) program until further notice, meaning undocumented migrants eligible for protection will not be able to apply as scheduled on Wednesday.
The suspension comes one day after district judge Andrew Hanen ordered the injunction late on Monday night, granting 26 states more time to try to stop a plan that would spare millions from deporation.
Hanen did not rule on whether the executive action itself was legal but said that the states had sufficient cause to challenge it. The White House said in a statement early on Tuesday that the Justice Department will appeal the ruling.
The injunction stops the Obama administration’s plan to expand a deferred deportation program on Wednesday, meaning thousands of young immigrants planning to apply must now wait in limbo for the foreseeable future.
In his decision, Hanen shot down the Obama administration’s claims to discretion within the bounds of the constitution, writing that the Department of Homeland Security was “not given any ‘discretion by law’ to give 4.3 million removable aliens” a “legal presence”.
“In fact the law mandates that these illegally present individuals be removed,” the ruling says. It adds that the Department of Homeland Security “has adopted a new rule that substantially changes both the status and employability of millions.”
Hanen agreed with the states that brought the lawsuit – a largely conservative group including Texas – that once taken, the executive actions would be “virtually irreversible”. He also agreed that the action could cause “irreparable harm” to the defendants, such as surges in law enforcement and healthcare costs. He was careful however to say that the pre-existing immigration program, Daca, is not under consideration in this case.
“The genie would be impossible to put back into the bottle,” he wrote.
US attorney general Eric Holder called the judge’s decision a setback, but expressed confidence that the courts would ultimately side with the Obama administration.
“We’re still in the process of looking at the opinion and trying to decide what steps we take next,” Holder said at during a speech at the National Press Club, one of his final speeches before stepping down as attorney general. “I think we have to look at this decision for what it is: it is a decision by one federal district court judge. I’ve always expected that this is a matter that will be decided by a higher court, if not the supreme court, then a federal court of appeals.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest countered in a statement that both the US supreme court and Congress “have made clear that the federal government can set priorities in enforcing our immigration laws – which is exactly what the president did.” Earnest wrote that “five decades of precedent by both parties” along with “legal scholars, immigration experts and the district court in Washington DC” agreed that Obama acted “well within his legal authority” to enact “common-sense” policies.
The fifth US circuit court of appeals would hear an appeal from the administration.
Texas governor Greg Abbott, who led the lawsuit as state attorney general until his election to governor, said in a statement that the decision “rightly stops the president’s overreach in its tracks”. The current state attorney general Ken Paxton hailed it as a “victory for the rule of law in America and a crucial first step in reining in President Obama’s lawlessness.”
Twelve states and more than 20 police chiefs from around the country have also sided with the Obama administration, filing motions with Hanen in support of the actions.
Legal experts largely agreed that the Obama administration would eventually win the day in court. Cornell law professor and immigration expert Steve Yale-Loehr said that precedent and case law supports the president’s authority to decide how laws are enforced, and that an appeals court would likely overturn the injunction.
Karen Tumlin, managing attorney of the National Immigration Law Center, said that people who are eligible should prepare to apply in a matter of weeks: “The ruling is so far outside the legal mainstream that we are confident that these programs will be upheld.”
Republicans in Congress have said they will try to undercut Obama’s actions by draining funding from the Department of Homeland Security, preventing it from enforcing the new rules.
Hanen himself wrote that his decision was only the start of a longer saga: “This is not the end of the inquiry; in fact, it is really the tip of the iceberg.”
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