Gabriel Rodriguez Valladolid excitedly gathered with his family in front of the television two years ago to watch President Barack Obama announce sweeping executive actions that could temporarily shield him and his wife from deportation.
It was November of 2014 and their Lawrenceville home was decorated for the holidays with snowmen figurines and brightly colored baubles. Obama's announcement felt like an early Christmas gift for them and their two young U.S.-born children.
But three months later a federal judge in Texas temporarily halted the Obama administration, siding with Georgia and 25 other states suing to stop the president's executive actions. A federal appeals court in New Orleans upheld the temporary injunction in May.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the historic case, which tests the boundaries of presidential power. The outcome could help decide Obama’s legacy as well as the fate of millions of immigrants without legal status like Rodriguez Valladolid, a native of Mexico, and his wife, Clara, who is from Guatemala.
“We hope we will get some good news,” said Gabriel Rodriguez Valladolid, who illegally entered the United States more than two decades ago, bought his house in Lawrenceville and started his own flooring installation business.
Steve Ramey of Lilburn sees it differently. As he watched Obama announce his plan, Ramey, the co-chairman of the United Tea Party of Georgia, grew steamed. Illegal immigration, he said, depresses wages and drives up taxpayer costs for public schools. Those who are living in the U.S. without legal permission should be deported, Ramey added.
“We have enough illegals sneaking into this country,” said Ramey. “They are a drain on us because they come here and they undercut the wages of most Americans.”
A Donald Trump supporter who publishes an online career guide for college students, Ramey is concerned enough about the problem that he checked to ensure the man who does his yardwork has a green card.
“I’m bitter about it,” Ramey said about illegal immigration. “I’m angry with our own politicians.”
The president doesn’t have the legal authority to do what he is trying to do, said Ramey, who is hoping the Supreme Court will uphold the injunction. Ramey sees Obama’s actions as part of a pattern.
“He is trying to usurp the power of Congress and even the Supreme Court by doing what he does,” Ramey said.
Expected by the end of June, the implications of the justices’ decision in the case - United States v. Texas - are broad: It could reflect how the court feels about presidential executive actions and also tip the balance of power between Congress and the White House.
“I doubt the Supreme Court will rule on the general authority of executive actions and the balance of power between the president and Congress,” said Cornell University Law School professor Stephen Yale-Loehr, co-author of a 21-volume immigration law treatise. “But people involved in other controversies involving executive actions, such as gun control or environmental policy, will certainly review the oral arguments in United States v. Texas closely to try to determine how legal challenges in those areas might fare.”
Coming before the presidential election, the ruling could also energize Hispanic voters and stoke the fires surrounding an issue that is red hot in the GOP primary. Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner, is campaigning on deporting all the estimated 11 million immigrants living without legal permission in the U.S. In contrast, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are pushing for a pathway to citizenship for immigrants without papers.
With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, it’s possible the court could split 4-4, which would leave the injunction in place. That could prompt federal lawsuits from other parties who want the executive actions to go forward, said David Leopold, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Last year, twelve other states and the District of Columbia filed court papers in support of Obama’s actions, saying they could help boost their tax revenues and economies. It’s possible one or more of them could sue, Leopold said.
“At a minimum, you’d see a lot of action in the courts all over the country,” he predicted about a 4-4 split. “And it would create a chaotic situation.”
Obama, who is set to leave office in January, fought unsuccessfully for bipartisan Senate legislation that would have overhauled the nation's immigration system. That bill stalled in the GOP-led House in 2013.
Citing inaction in Congress, Obama is now proposing three-year work permits and deportation deferrals for people who don’t have legal status but do have children who were born here or are legal permanent residents. To be eligible for the program — called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents or DAPA — they must have lived in the U.S. continuously since Jan. 1 of 2010 and submit to background checks.
More than 4 million people would be eligible nationwide. It’s unknown how many of them are in Georgia. But in 2012 there were 116,000 immigrants living in Georgia without legal status but with U.S.-born children, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that evaluates migration policies. Rodriguez Valladolid is among them.
Obama’s plan would also expand a program granting temporary deportation deferrals and work permits to immigrants who were illegally brought here as children. The move eliminates the age cap in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which was 31 — and requires them to have continually resided in the U.S. from Jan. 1 2010 to the present, a change from June 2007. It would also make their work permits and deportation deferrals good for three years, up from two.
Led by Texas, the 26 states suing to stop Obama’s plan say it would boost their costs for services and become a magnet for illegal immigration. Others say the case is more about complying with the Constitution. Georgia’s two U.S. Republican senators have joined 41 of their GOP colleagues in the Senate in signing court papers in opposition to the president’s actions.
“President Obama’s attempt to circumvent Congress by executive order and grant legal status to millions is unconstitutional and unacceptable,” U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said.
The Obama administration argues the executive branch has “unusually broad discretion in immigration.” Meanwhile, Atlanta’s mayor and police chief, Georgia’s four Democratic congressmen and three immigrant rights groups based in the Peach State have filed court papers in support of Obama’s plans. In March, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed joined officials in more than 100 other cities and counties in filing a brief in support of the Obama administration’s efforts. Reed predicted the Supreme Court will “come down on the right side of history by allowing this imperative step toward fixing our broken immigration system.”
While Reed and other allies are lining up in support of Obama, the president is simultaneously feeling pressure on his left flank. Immigrant rights activists are planning to travel to Washington Monday to demonstrate outside the courthouse in favor of the president’s plans, but also to lobby Congress in opposition to the Obama administration’s recent immigration enforcement raids. Part of a nationwide crackdown against the waves of Central Americans immigrants illegally entering the country, the raids have ensnared hundreds of people in Georgia and other states this year, including teens who had enrolled in public schools here.
“We are putting pressure on the administration to not only implement DAPA but also to ensure that enforcement priorities follow our values,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, field director for Mijente, a national political group that is collaborating with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. “We don’t stand with separating children from their families.”
For Rodriguez Valladolid, the Supreme Court case is personal. He previously faced deportation for driving without a license. Immigration authorities have placed his deportation case on hold and approved a one-year work permit for him. But he lacks a driver’s license. So does his wife, Clara.
If the court upholds the president’s actions, he and his wife could potentially qualify for three-year work permits through DAPA and maybe even Georgia driver’s licenses as a result, said his immigration attorney, Sarah Owings. Rodriguez Valladolid said a driver’s license could allow him to expand his flooring business, hire more workers and pay more state and federal taxes. Plus, he hopes, the DAPA program would allow him to visit his relatives in Mexico and legally return to his family in Lawrenceville.
“My grandmother passed away just last night” in Mexico, he said Tuesday. “I feel frustrated that I cannot go to Mexico to see my family.”