WASHINGTON — Jose Dominguez was only days away from applying for a new program created by President Barack Obama that would shield millions of immigrants from deportation. But the journey — and his heartbreak — have been years in the making.
Dominguez, an 18-year-old Baltimore man who was brought to the United States illegally from Mexico six years ago, missed the arrival cutoff for a similar program created in 2012. When Obama announced in November that the program would be expanded to include more recent arrivals, Dominguez celebrated.
But his expectations were dampened Tuesday after a federal judge halted the effort, siding with 26 states that had filed a lawsuit contending that the president had overstepped his authority by acting unilaterally on the issue.
Obama vowed to appeal the decision, but the ruling put on hold a defining initiative of his presidency — and became a new sticking point in the pressing debate on Capitol Hill about funding the Department of Homeland Security. Without an agreement, the department is set to shut down next week.
Dominguez, who learned of the U.S. District Court ruling from his mother hours after it was issued late Monday, described the news as discouraging.
"We're not criminals. We're just normal people, and we're here to better our lives," said a tearful Dominguez, who is studying computer systems at Baltimore City Community College. "I believe that this is a great nation, but we need to stay more united and more interested in each other."
The judge's ruling came less than 48 hours before immigration officials were to begin accepting applications for the program from which Dominguez hoped to benefit.
The president predicted Tuesday that the courts would ultimately uphold his efforts as lawful.
"The law is on our side, and history is on our side," Obama told reporters in the Oval Office. "This is not the first time where a lower court judge has blocked something, or attempted to block something, that ultimately was shown to be lawful. And I'm confident that it is well within my authority."
For now, though, his administration put on hold plans to start its expansion Wednesday of the 2012 program that has shielded nearly 600,000 young people, the so-called dreamers, from deportation, and a much larger effort to defer action on deportations that could apply to about 4 million adults living here illegally. That initiative was set to begin in May, and its future is now uncertain.
The ruling by District Judge Andrew Hanen of Texas, an appointee of President George W. Bush, touched off a day of cheering by Republicans, logistical and legal scrambling at the White House and vigorous efforts by advocates to reassure potential applicants that they should not give up.
Groups that advocate for immigrants described the ruling as a "speed bump." But they expressed concern that court battles and the fight on Capitol Hill over the Department of Homeland Security are creating confusion and fear among those who might consider applying.
"We are urging the hundreds of thousands of immigrants across our region that qualify to continue to collect their documents and become prepared for the moment when this temporary decision is overturned," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, a leading immigrant advocacy group in Maryland.
The ruling could also have an impact on the pending debate over the Department of Homeland Security — but the extent of that impact is unclear. Republicans in Congress are attempting to use a department funding bill to strike Obama's executive actions on immigration. Democrats have opposed that effort, creating the type of budget showdown not seen in the Capitol for more than a year.
Republicans said the ruling vindicated their efforts to block funding for the immigration programs, and leaders gave no indication that they might change course.
"Even our federal courts are acknowledging that the president's unilateral actions have completely undermined our legal immigration system," Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, Maryland's sole Republican in Congress, said in a statement.
Obama unveiled a series of steps in November to ease enforcement against some undocumented immigrants. The administration proposed expanding a 2012 program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that allows immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday to apply for relief.
The program initially applied to those who entered by June 2007; the latest effort would move the cutoff date to January 2010.
About 55,000 adults in Maryland might be eligible to apply for the parental program, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. Five thousand young people could be eligible for the DACA expansion.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the administration would not accept new applications for either new program, but said the court order does not affect the original DACA program.
Hanen, who has taken a hard line on enforcement in other immigration cases, said the Obama administration overstepped its authority in establishing the program, which he said would grant "legal presence and benefits to otherwise removable aliens."
If the government were to begin to allow immigrants to stay in the country while the court case goes forward, Hanen said, "the genie would be impossible to put back into the bottle."
He said he agreed with the states that legalizing the presence of millions of people is a "virtually irreversible" action.
Advocates, as well as several local Democrats who have sided with the Obama administration in the lawsuit, predicted that the order would quickly be overturned. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, both Democrats, have joined separate friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the president's executive actions.
"We are undeterred," said Rawlings-Blake, who has pressed for immigrant-friendly policies. "These reforms will be implemented, and we look forward to ensuring all eligible persons will be brought out of the shadows."