Yesterday, a federal judge in Brownsville, Texas, heard arguments from 25 states and the federal government on whether to block President Obama’s executive order on immigration. Here’s what you need to know about Texas v. United States, the name the case has been assigned:
1) This is only the beginning of the lawsuit
The case before U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, is still in its infancy stages. A trial, if one occurs at all, is still long ways away. But yesterday’s hearing was important because it could signal what could occur at trial. One of the questions Judge Hanen will be deciding is the states’ “likelihood of success on the merits”—that is, the likelihood that they actually have a winning case.
So far, that question is up in the air. Late last year, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. threw out a similar lawsuit by Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, noting in her decision that the sheriff likely could not win on his claim that the president acted unconstitutionally when he issued his new immigration directive. Part of yesterday’s hearing centered on this constitutional argument.
2) That said, the judge won’t be ruling on the constitutionality of the program
“This lawsuit is not about immigration. It is about the rule of law, presidential power, and the structural limits of the U.S. Constitution,” the states argued in court documents. That’s the bottom line of the states’ lawsuit: they seek the invalidation of the program on constitutional grounds. But the court won’t be deciding the constitutionality of the program. At least not yet.
Though that question certainly reared its head in yesterday’s hearing, Hanen will only be deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction, an extraordinary remedy that prevents the allegedly offending party from hurting the party that’s suing—here, the federal government and the several states, respectively. It’s similar to a restraining order, a temporary court order that forbids conduct while the court reaches a final decision on a matter.
But the Supreme Court has said that a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary measure—courts shouldn’t grant them lightly. Which is why yesterday’s hearing was a big deal. And the burden will be on Texas and the other states to make a clear showing that they’re entitled to an order that puts a stop to the program.
3) To grant an injunction, the judge will rule on whether the executive order causes Harm
A key dispute the judge will decide is whether President Obama’s immigration order somehow “injures” the suing states. But the federal government and the states are interested in this particular dispute for different reasons.
The Obama administration argues the executive order doesn’t harm the states at all and thus the lawsuit should be dismissed altogether—that the states lack “standing” to sue. The government contends that the new deferred-action policy doesn’t mandate the states to take any action; the states aren’t themselves targeted by it. And because the states are “neither prosecuted nor threatened with prosecution” as a result of the executive order, they’re essentially third parties without a stake in government’s policy choices regarding immigration. They have no business bringing this lawsuit.
The states, on the other hand, not only argue that the executive order does harm them, but that it also “irreparably” harms them—that it injures them so severely that the judge must order an injunction to stop the program from even taking effect. The states assert, among other things, that the immigration plan imposes huge administrative costs on them, that it will set off a new wave of illegal immigration leading to another “humanitarian crisis” in border states, and that beneficiaries will be eligible for state programs that they otherwise wouldn’t be eligible for.
4) Which side has the better case?
There is broad consensus that the president has the better argument. A number of legal scholars and immigration experts have come out in favor of the constitutionality of President Obama’s executive order, which finds its roots in existing immigration law and longstanding prosecutorial discretion—the president’s prerogative to enforce or not enforce the laws with respect to deportations. And because Congress is in charge of passing immigration laws—yesterday, the House of Representatives did just that—Judge Hanen may be disinclined to settle a dispute between co-elected branches.
The federal government also has some allies. A coalition of 12 states filed a legal document in support of the new policy, arguing that its effects are beneficial for local economies. And an alliance of police chiefs from major cities submitted court documents arguing that the president’s order helps to “to effectively police and protect the communities they serve.” The aim of both these groups is clearly to counter the states’ claims that the new immigration policy harms them.
Some opponents of the measure, such as libertarian think-tank Cato Institute, do not focus so much on the harm aspect—in fact, the group thinks it’s “good policy”—but merely argue that the president engaged in executive overreach. They contend, among other things, that Obama violated the Constitution by failing to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” and enacting a policy that simply advanced his agenda. Cato maintains that the new immigration order is in direct conflict with the will of Congress as expressed in immigration laws currently on the books.
This is a point to watch—Obama has said on numerous occasions that he can only act within the parameters of the law. A finding that the immigration order actually violates federal law would indeed undermine the whole program. But Judge Hanen won’t be deciding that any time soon—he’ll only decide the likelihood that that might be the case.
5) What’s next?
A small waiting period. Because Texas and the other states are only seeking temporary relief, an order from the judge granting or denying the injunction shouldn’t take long—at the hearing, Judge Hanen said he won’t rule until after Jan. 30. (The judge who ruled on Joe Arpaio’s case only took one day to rule.)
If the federal government wins, the injunction would be denied and the case would be dismissed; the repercussions, other than an appeal, would be minor. A win for the states, however, could potentially deal a huge blow to the Obama administration and immigration advocacy groups, which have been engaging in significant prep work ahead of the new program’s rollout. It could cause major disruption unless a higher court intervenes. Win or lose, there would probably be an appeal. And given the significance of the executive order on immigration, the case might even reach the Supreme Court—before it even goes to trial.
Whatever the outcome, yesterday’s hearing is only the beginning of a case that could potentially drag on for years, politicizing the issue of immigration further as the litigation advances. Since there’s agreement that millions would benefit from the new executive order, the quicker the court makes a decision and eliminates uncertainty, the better.
Cristian Farias is a journalist and lawyer based in New York. He writes on civil rights and legal affairs. You can follow him on Twitter @cristianafarias.