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Politics & Government

Stalled Legal Process Threatens Obama's Executive Actions On Immigration


It's been almost a year since President Obama proposed easing the threat of deportation for millions of immigrants and their families. And for most of that time, the move has been held up in a federal appeals court. The drawn-out legal process may mean that the president's executive actions won't be enacted before the end of his term. NPR's Richard Gonzales has more.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The federal courthouse in New Orleans is home to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Chanting in Spanish).

GONZALES: Last week outside the courthouse, about a dozen or so protesters celebrated the end of a nine-day water-only fast. It's part of a campaign to draw attention to the legal battle over the fate of the president's immigration plan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in Spanish).

GONZALES: One of the fasters is a 21-year-old college student, Jannet Ramirez. She was only a toddler when her parents arrived here from Mexico. Ramirez says she grew up in Arkansas with a constant fear that her undocumented parents could be deported on any given day.

JANNET RAMIREZ: Absolutely. There have been times where my mother has been pulled over by police, and thankfully, she only got a ticket. But if my parents are ever to get arrested, the city where I live in does have a policy of calling ICE. And if ICE wants to, they can take them off to a detention center and deport them.

GONZALES: Ramirez is protected from deportation under a 2012 Obama program that covered about a quarter of a million immigrants brought here as children. Her parents would have benefited from President Obama's attempt to expand that program to as many as four million immigrants. That expansion would've included work permits and protection from deportation. But the state of Texas, along with 25 other states, filed a lawsuit.

In February, Federal Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas, slapped an injunction on the program. That's how it landed before a three-judge panel in July at the 5th Circuit. The court usually takes 60 days to issue its rulings. It's now three months, and there's still no decision. David Leopold is a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He says the appellate court, known to be conservative, is dragging its feet.

DAVID LEOPOLD: Justice delayed is justice denied, and that's what this delay represents to me.

GONZALES: Even if the Supreme Court gets the case soon, a decision wouldn't come until June 2016 at the earliest, says Josh Blackman, who teaches constitutional law at the South Texas College of Law. He also filed a brief opposing the president's executive actions.

JOSH BLACKMAN: I can't see the judges being in a hurry to get into this mess three months before the general election.

GONZALES: Immigration activists say a court delay would continue to galvanize supporters of immigration reform in an election year. Attorney David Leopold says a lot is riding on getting any ruling out of the 5th Circuit.

LEOPOLD: Unless the case gets from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to the United States Supreme Court in enough time for it to be heard this term, we're not going to get a final ruling from the Supreme Court on the president's executive actions possibly until June of 2017, and that's months after he leaves office.

GONZALES: That means the next president - Democrat or Republican - would decide whether or not to continue the court fight over Obama's immigration actions. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.