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Supreme Court takes case on Obama's immigration actions

The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear arguments on President Barack Obama's sweeping immigration program and rule on whether he has the power to offer "lawful presence" and a work permit to more than 4 million people living in the United States illegally.

The justices voted to hear an appeal from Obama's lawyers, who are challenging decisions by a federal judge in Texas and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that blocked his executive action from taking effect.

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Obama's plan to broaden the category of immigrants to be spared deportation could affect about 56,000 people in Maryland, the Migration Policy Institute estimated last year. Elizabeth Keyes, who runs an immigration law clinic at the University of Baltimore, said Tuesday that the figure could be far higher.

The court's election-year announcement sets the stage for what promises to be one of the most significant and politically charged immigration decisions in the court's history. Supporters of Obama's plan say it's a justifiable use of presidential authority that would give a measure of certainty to vulnerable immigrant communities. Critics say he has exceeded his powers in a sensitive policy area.

Obama announced the actions in late 2014, and activists in Maryland began preparing to process a flood of applications. Advocates expressed optimism Tuesday that the Supreme Court would uphold the order.

The machinery they built remains ready to go, Keyes said.

"We are ready and eager in the legal services community and the private bar to get people the representation they need to actually make it happen," she said.

Three years ago, the justices dealt a defeat to conservative states that sought to crack down on illegal immigrants. They rejected the key provisions of an Arizona law that would have empowered its police to stop, question and arrest people who could not show they were citizens.

By a 5-3 vote, the justices said the president and his executive officers have "broad discretion" — including enforcement and deciding who should be arrested and deported — over immigration policy.

Now, the question is whether the president may use that discretion to give several million otherwise law-abiding immigrants a temporary shield from deportation. In 2012, Obama gave this "deferred action" status to about 600,000 young people who were brought to this country illegally as children.

That benefit for so-called dreamers went largely unchallenged.

In November 2014, Obama went further, offering to defer deportation for more than 4 million parents of U.S. citizens or legal residents who had lived here since 2010.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called them "hard-working people who have become integrated members of American society."

He said the government would rather focus on deporting criminals, gang members or terrorists.

Once eligible persons came forward and passed a background check, they would be offered a work permit and would become eligible for some federal benefits, including Social Security, Medicare and the earned-income tax credit.

A separate expansion of the program, focused on the dreamers, could help several hundred thousand more immigrants.

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But Obama's action has not gone into effect — and probably won't, unless the Supreme Court rules in the president's favor.

Lawyers for Texas and 25 other Republican-led states sued Obama in a federal court in the border town of Brownsville, Texas. They successfully argued that the president had overstepped his authority.

This "assertion of unilateral executive power" violates the Constitution's "separation of powers," Texas Solicitor General Scott A. Keller said.

If Obama can defy Congress and decide on his own not to enforce the laws against illegal immigration, he said, future presidents could decide on their own not to enforce laws on the environment, taxes or civil rights.

U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., representing Obama, said the Texas lawsuit should be thrown out because the 26 Republican states do not have the authority to interfere with immigration policy. Obama's order "does not regulate states or require states to do (or not do) anything," he said.

Blocking Obama's plan from taking effect "will force millions of people-who are not removal priorities — and who are parents of U.S citizens and permanent residents — to continue to work off the books, without the option of lawful employment to provide for their families," he said.

The case could turn on the question of standing. Verrilli said Texas has cited no "injury" in its lawsuit, except the state's cost of providing driver's licenses to immigrants. But Verrilli said that since Texas chose on its own to partially subsidize the cost of issuing licenses rather than force applicants to bear the entire cost, the state cannot now use this policy as the basis for its complaint.

Some Maryland officials have thrown their weight behind the Obama administration. Attorney General Brian E. Frosh signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief by states supporting the Obama administration's attempt to get the high court to review the case.

Baltimore and Prince George's and Montgomery counties joined a separate brief.

The states in support of the federal government, led by Washington, argued that the policy change would reduce the burden that undocumented immigrants put on states.

"This will increase state tax revenue, enhance public safety, and help avoid tragic situations in which parents are deported away from their U.S. citizen children, who are left to rely on state services or extended family," Frosh and the other states' attorneys general wrote.

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the governor was not involved in the decision to join the states' brief. Hogan is a Republican; Frosh is a Democrat.

"Signing onto the amicus brief was an Attorney General Frosh action, which, as usual, the governor's office had no knowledge of beforehand," he said.

The two sides in the legal fight disagree even on how to describe the action at issue. Obama's lawyers say it's mere "guidance" and "a general statement of policy," not an official regulation. No immigrant would be granted any new legal rights, and their "lawful presence" would be determined on a "case-by-case basis."

But the Texas lawyers say Obama seeks "one of the largest changes in immigration policy in our nation's history," potentially affecting millions of people. They concede that federal agents have the discretion to spare these people from deportation, but giving them a "lawful presence" and a work permit amounts to changing the law.

"There is no constitutional or statutory authority for such a change," they said.

The court will likely hear arguments in United States v. Texas in April and hand down a ruling near the end of June.

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Adonia Simpson is an attorney at the Esperanza Center in Fells Point, which provides services to immigrants. She said there's optimism in the community about the policy and "the potential to live here without fear of removal."

But activists are cautioning that there are no guarantees. The court could strike down the president's policy, or it could be altered by his successors.

Or the ruling could come so late in Obama's last term that there would be no time to left implement the program.

"It's been a lot of managing of expectations," Simpson said.

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