WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama will leave office next year without a significant accomplishment on immigration, after the US Supreme Court upheld a legal block yesterday (Thursday) on his proposed measures to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation.
Mr Obama enraged Republicans in 2014 when he circumvented Congress and issued two executive orders designed to allow some four million illegal immigrants to remain in the US and receive work permits.
A lower court ruled that the actions were impermissible, setting the stage for a showdown at the Supreme Court. The court is short one justice because Republicans have refused hearings for Merrick Garland, Mr Obama's nominee to replace Antonin Scalia, the arch-conservative who died in February.
The judges split along ideological lines, with the four liberal justices ruling in favour of the measures and the four conservatives ruling against, allowing the lower court ruling to stand.
Mr Obama called the outcome "heartbreaking", and railed against congressional Republicans for failing to pass immigration reform and refusing to consider Mr Garland's nomination.
"For more than two decades now, our immigration system, everybody acknowledges, has been broken," he said. "And the fact that the Supreme Court wasn't able to issue a decision today doesn't just set the system back even further, it takes us further from the country that we aspire to be." The measures would provide deportation relief to illegal immigrants who arrived as children, and the parents of American citizens who are themselves undocumented. Individuals who qualified could also have received work permits.
Hillary Clinton, who has pledged more ambitious steps than those attempted by Mr Obama, called the decision "unacceptable" in a statement.
"These are our friends and family members, neighbours and classmates, dreamers and parents of Americans and lawful permanent residents," she said. "They enrich our communities and contribute to our economy every day. We should be doing everything possible under the law to provide them relief from the spectre of deportation."
Immigration will be one of the primary battle lines in the election contest between Mrs Clinton and Donald Trump, who will be encouraged by the ruling. Mr Trump's immigration policy is to deport all 11 million people in the US illegally, and build a wall on the border with Mexico.
Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, said the Constitution itself was "vindicated" by the ruling. Because the court did not offer a ruling on the merits of the case, it is possible the measures could again come before the court on appeal.
"Sooner or later, immigration reform will get done," Mr Obama said, acknowledging that he will probably not be the president to see it through. "Congress is not going to be able to ignore America forever."