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Texas immigrants rest case with Supreme Court

27 Nov

TAYLOR, Texas — Jacky Ortega wants to be a lawyer someday. But first, she’s hoping her country’s most distinguished lawyers will help keep her family intact.

That fervent desire prompted the 15-year-old to join her parents last week on a three-day, 37-mile trek from a fenced-in detention center for undocumented immigrants to the stately Texas governor’s mansion in Austin — with a break in between to attend school.

Like many of her classmates, Jacky is a U.S. citizen, born and raised in the United States. Others came into the country as children and could gain protection from deportation under President Obama’s executive actions.

But when Obama tried to protect more than 4 million undocumented parents of those children from the threat of deportation without going through Congress, Texas went to court and won, twice. On Nov. 20, a year after that executive action was announced and in the middle of the bedraggled protesters’ march, the Justice Department asked the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court to intervene.

Unless the justices agree to hear the case and overrule the lower courts’ rulings, families like the Ortegas will be out of luck, along with about 750,000 other Texans. Jacky’s parents, Felipe and Maria, would not have the same protection as their daughter. Even her brother could be at risk.

“If they all got deported, I would be the only one here,” Jacky said as she headed west along Route 79. “It’s just sad to think about it. I don’t want that to happen, ever.”

Obama unveiled the program a year ago as an extension of his 2012 policy delaying the threat of deportation for about 770,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. The new plan would expand that program and add protections for adults with children who are U.S. citizens or lawful residents — “hard-working people who have become integrated members of American society,” in Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s words. Here in Texas, for instance, foreign-born residents represent roughly half of the construction workforce.

At the same time, Johnson advised immigration officials to make dangerous or criminal aliens the top priorities for detention and deportation — not those with children who have led law-abiding lives. The executive action hung up in court would go further, making millions of parents eligible for federal work permits and a host of health care, disability and retirement benefits.

Immigrant rights groups say the new protections are important, because the administration’s priorities aren’t followed by all immigration and customs officials.

“The families who are coming into our events — the fear in their eyes is very real,” said Carolina Ramirez of United We Dream in Houston. “Families are being deported.”

But Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which advocates for lower immigration levels, said courts have not prevented Obama from setting priorities that go easy on immigrants who simply overstay their visas.

“The only reason he is taking this case to the Supreme Court is to make sure that millions of these illegally present foreign citizens get work permits to compete with struggling American workers for jobs and wages,” Beck said.

Court’s clock is ticking

Federal District Court Judge Andrew Hanen issued a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the program in February. In May, the appeals court panel refused to let the program continue while it considered the government’s appeal.

In its ruling earlier this month, that court’s 2-1 majority said Obama’s program would permit his administration “to grant lawful presence and work authorization to any illegal alien in the United States,” allowing them to receive benefits “solely on account of their children’s immigration status.”

Their ruling said the program “would dramatically increase the number of aliens eligible for work authorization, thereby undermining Congress’s stated goal of closely guarding access to work authorization and preserving jobs for those lawfully in the country.”

The Justice Department quickly asked the Supreme Court to take the case. In its brief last Friday, it said the appeals court ruling “will allow states to frustrate the federal government’s enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws,” and “force millions of people … who are parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to continue to work off the books, without the option of lawful employment to provide for their families.”

Texas normally would have a month to respond, but on Tuesday it asked for a 30-day extension until Jan. 20 because of a heavy workload involving other Supreme Court cases. Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller argued that a delay should not endanger undocumented immigrants who the federal government doesn’t prioritize for deportation.

“The preliminary injunction does not require the executive to remove any alien, and it does not impair the executive’s ability to set priorities for determining which unauthorized aliens to remove,” Keller wrote.

A 30-day extension could make the difference in whether the case — should it be granted — gets scheduled for the spring or next fall. The later timetable almost certainly would push the court’s ruling to 2017, after Obama has left office. If a Republican wins the White House, the program might never get off the ground.

“We’re hopeful that there is enough time for the Supreme Court to hear this case,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “We will make every effort to make sure the justices understand that millions of people’s lives, especially children’s lives, are at stake.”

‘We’re building the state’

Children were the focus of last week’s march through the rolling farmland northeast of Austin to Gov. Greg Abbott’s white-columned mansion. Some of the undocumented immigrants who participated spoke only Spanish and would not agree to be fully identified because of their status.

There was Irma, also 39, who came from El Salvador more than a decade ago. Her 7-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen, frequently clings to her for fear of separation.

There was Maria, 35, who crossed the Rio Grande on foot from Mexico eight years ago, the water up to her neck. Her family is equally divided by status: parents and 12-year-old son undocumented, while three younger children were born in America.

And there was Felix Enrique Jimenez, 39, a U.S. resident for 15 years sporting a black “Texas” cap. One daughter, 21, is eligible for the 2012 program; the other, 11, was born in the USA. If he could be protected from deportation to Mexico, Jiminez said, he could go back to school and boost his family’s finances.

“We’re here, and we’re building the state,” he said, “and we’re facing all this discrimination.”