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Supreme Court Immigration Decision: do not despair


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By Julia Stronks

SpokaneFāVS readers are likely confused and frustrated by the recent U.S. Supreme Court immigration decision. I think that people of faith can reasonably disagree about the complicated issues of separation of powers and federalism raised by this case. But, justice requires that we make some sort of commitment to those law-abiding residents who have lived and worked and raised children among us for years. If you support some sort of action to allow undocumented but long-standing residents access to a work visa, my message is this: do not despair, and get out the vote!

In U.S. v Texas, over half the states in the nation asked the Supreme Court to invalidate President Obama’s executive action that had provided relief to some undocumented residents. These states said that the executive action violated the Constitution in two ways. First, it violated separation of powers in that the president had usurped immigration policy which actually belongs to the legislative branch. Second, the states said that Obama’s action violated federalism because it would require states to spend money on things like drivers licenses for people without legal residency. The states said that things like drivers licenses were in the purview of a state, not the federal government.

After hearing oral arguments the justices released a nine word statement: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.” This means that the holding of the lower federal court would stand. So, it is critically important to understand what the lower court actually did.

The case began in Texas, in a low level federal district court in 2015. Before ruling on the constitutionality of President Obama’s action the federal judge in this lowest federal court issued an injunction, halting any federal effort to comply with Obama’s order. The injunction acted as a “time out” until a decision could be made about the immigration orders themselves.

Then the injunction, not the constitutionality of Obama’s action, was appealed to a federal appellate court judge. That judge upheld the injunction, issuing a 100 page opinion that talked about federalism, separation of powers, standing, the costs to the states and a wide variety of other issues. But, there was again no actual decision about the constitutionality of Obama’s executive order. Then, that ruling which upheld the injunction was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices of the Supreme Court knew that to try and rule on the constitutionality of Obama’s action would be an extreme act of judicial activism—the issue before them was only the injunction. And, the justices were divided on the merits of the case. So, they took a very narrow approach and issued their nine word statement saying that the lower court’s injunction remains in effect.

Well, what happens now? This case is far from over.

At this point the injunction remains in effect, and the federal government may not comply with Obama’s executive order. But, this does not mean deportation will occur. It does not mean that Obama’s act is unconstitutional. It means that the debate about the constitutionality of Obama’s action goes all the way back down to the very first federal court which must have a trial and then make a ruling on the merits of the case. Did President Obama’s executive decisions about immigration violate the Constitution? That decision will likely be appealed to the appellate court. Then, that ruling is likely to come back to the U.S. Supreme Court. This will all take years.

And, this means that those of us committed to justice for undocumented residents have work to do. The most important next step for this issue is the November election.

First, the next president and the next congress will be making decisions about immigration. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have already announced their perspectives on undocumented residents.

Second, as the states involved in U.S. v Texas pointed out, while immigration belongs to the federal government a number of issues related to crime, drivers licenses, and education for undocumented residents rest in the hands of the states. State elections are critically important.

So, figure out who you will support for the presidency and congress. Find out what your state legislature is thinking about regarding the rights of the undocumented in your state. Educate yourself. And, don’t just vote. Make sure every like-minded person in your church, your neighborhood, your book group, your office is registered and informed. Exercise citizenship. Get out the vote.

Julia Stronks
Julia Stronks
Julia Stronks practiced law and is a professor of political science at Whitworth University in Spokane. She writes about faith, law and public policy. Her most recent book, written with her mother Gloria Goris Stronks, Professor emeritus of Calvin College, is "Teaching to Faith, Citizenship and Civic Virtue" (Resources Publications: Wipf and Stock, 2014). Her discussion of President Trump and the Constitution can be found in the last chapter of Ron Sider’s new book "The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity" (Cascade Books, 2020).

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7 years ago

Very tough topic. You handled it expertly 🙂 Thank you. Look forward to more articles from you.

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