Supreme Court puts Obama immigration legacy on November's ballot

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Story highlights

  • Ruling on Obama's executive orders sends shock waves through race
  • Deadlocked Court now at center of fierce campaign
  • Trump, Clinton battle with fate of millions of undocumented people at stake

Washington (CNN)The U.S. Supreme Court just smashed open a political hornet's nest.

The court's deadlocked ruling Thursday that effectively blocks Barack Obama's controversial executive actions on immigration, sent convulsions through the 2016 election campaign, dealt a shattering blow to the President's legacy and suddenly left four million undocumented people fearing deportation.
    The eight justices ensured that a campaign that has already been consumed by divisive rhetoric on immigration will likely become even more fraught, and made the already bitter fight over the destiny of the court will even more intense, with the next President poised to make appointments that could shift its ideological balance for decades.
    All three branches of the U.S. government -- the executive, the legislature and the judiciary -- have now taken up the polarizing issue of immigration reform, and failed to solve it. Now, it's back to the voters to deliver a verdict on programs designed by Obama to offer work permits and other benefits to 4 million people who had hoped to move out of the shadows into the center of American life.
    "In November, Americans are going to have to make a decision about what we care about and who we are," Obama said at the White House Thursday.
    Immigration may not decide the election, but the issue is so emotive that it exerts a powerful influence of base voters in both parties. And since the election could turn on which candidate can motivate the highest number of committed partisans to go to the polls, immigration will play a crucial role.
    The ruling provides a rallying point for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who has vowed to go even further than Obama on executive action and is using the issue to cultivate crucial Hispanic general election voters. And it plays directly into the hands of Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, who has centered his campaign on illegal immigration, a plan to deport undocumented migrants and a proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border.
    "The election, and the Supreme Court appointments that come with it will decide whether or not we have a border and, hence, a country," Trump said in a statement. "Clinton has pledged to expand Obama's executive amnesty, hurting poor African-American and Hispanic workers by giving away their jobs and federal resources to illegal immigrant labor -- while making us all less safe."
    It will especially reverberate through crucial swing states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado, which have heavy Hispanic populations and could be crucial in deciding who is inaugurated as the 45th President in January.
    "What issue is more central to the Presidential campaign that immigration?" said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
    Clinton quickly reacted to the ruling -- released by the court in a single sentence -- laying out the electoral battle lines with Trump on an issue that mirrors the polarized state of the nation's politics.
    "Today's deadlocked decision from the Supreme Court is unacceptable, and show us all just how high the stakes are in this election," Clinton said in a statement, which argued Obama was well within his constitutional rights to protect millions of undocumented people from deportation.
    "These are our friends and family members; neighbors and classmates; DREAMers and parents of Americans and lawful permanent residents," Clinton said.
    Clinton also vowed to make ninth Supreme Court seat, open since Republicans refused to confirm Obama's nominee Merrick Garland to succeed Justice Antonin Scalia, a central election issue.
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    "Our families and our country need and deserve a full bench, and Senate Republicans need to stop playing political games with our democracy," Clinton said.
    And the former Secretary of State made clear her intention to eviscerate Trump over his immigration policies -- including his plans for mass deportations.
    "He has called Mexican immigrants 'rapists' and 'murderers.' He has called for creating a deportation force" to tear 11 million people away from their families and their homes," Clinton said of Trump.

    Obama's defeat

    For Obama, the court appeared to deal a death blow to his hopes for a large-scale immigration changes.
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    The President put a brave face on the defeat, reasoning that since the court was deadlocked and therefore handed the case back to the lower court, it was not a ruling on the legality of his actions.
    "This we have to abide by, but it wasn't any kind of value statement or a decision on the merits of the case."
    But the ruling was an undeniable disappointment, as Obama came to office vowing to enforce sweeping changes previously stifled by Washington gridlock -- and saw the broken immigration system as a prime target.
    In effect, and in a rebuke to a President who has forged major change in health care and economic regulation, the immigration system he sought to reform will remain largely as it was when he took office.
    "I don't anticipate that there are additional executive actions that we can take," Obama said. "We can implement what we have already put in place that is not affected by this decision."
    Immigration isn't the only agenda item that Obama has struggled to advance. But with its deep resonance among the communities that helped him take office, its status as an elusive policy goal for past presidents and its potential to become a legacy-defining move, the failure to enact lasting changes was certain to become one of Obama's chief disappointments.
    Obama's experience attempting reform of the country's immigration system has been dotted with delays since he entered the White House in 2009. Back then, Obama and his aides viewed major reforms to the immigration system as a top domestic priority that fit neatly into the promises of his historic campaign: change, embracing diversity, and improving peoples' lives.
    But the prospects of legislative reform were sidelined as Obama worked to salvage the economy, the overwhelming focus of his first years in office. Health care became the White House's chosen issue, using Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to advance the Affordable Care Act instead of pushing an immigration plan.
    Obama took his own steps in 2012, allowing some young undocumented immigrants to remain the country on certain conditions. The move was popular among activists, and helped him win by a large margin among Latinos in his re-election bid.
    But the next year, a bipartisan measure which seemed to have the best chances of succeeding in Congress died in the House after having passed the Senate with a healthy bipartisan margin.
    Frustrated with congressional inaction, Obama made a bold second-term decision to forge his own way forward.
    "To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill," he said during his televised address from the White House Cross Hall in late 2014.
    The political repercussions of Obama's immigration moves weren't lost on the White House; officials delayed the announcement until after the 2014 midterm congressional elections at the request of moderate Democrats anxious about being tied to potentially unpopular decisions by the President.
    Democrats suffered widespread losses anyway, including failing to retain power of the Senate. The elevation of GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell to majority leader all but ensured there wouldn't be a legislative immigration push during Obama's presidency.
    Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former GOP presidential candidate, didn't mince words about the court's impact.
    "This is a slap down to the President," Graham told CNN. "It shows there are limitations on the President's actions and the only way to resolve this problem is through the Congress."