The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear President Barack Obama's bid to resurrect his plan to shield more than 4 million illegal immigrants from deportation, a unilateral executive action he took in 2014 to bypass the Republican-led Congress.
The dispute, to be argued before the court in the coming months with a ruling due by the end of June, will be one of the centerpiece cases of the court's current term. Obama's executive action was blocked by lower courts after Texas and 25 other Republican-governed sued to stop it, contending he exceeded his presidential powers under the U.S. Constitution.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said in a statement that courts have long recognized the limits to presidential authority.
"The court should affirm what President Obama said himself on more than 20 occasions: that he cannot unilaterally rewrite congressional laws and circumvent the people's representatives," Paxton said.
The Supreme Court action was welcomed by immigration advocates, who said they hope the program will be upheld and go into effect before Obama leaves office in January 2017.
"It gives so much hope to millions of families who are in legal limbo right now," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
The nine justices will review a November ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld a February 2015 decision by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, a city along the Texas border with Mexico, to halt Obama's action.
With some of his major legislative initiatives suffocated by Republican lawmakers, the Democratic president has resorted to executive action to get around Congress on issues including immigration, gun control and the Obamacare healthcare law. The most recent executive action came this month when he acted unilaterally to expand background checks for certain gun purchases.
His executive actions have antagonized Republicans who accuse him of unlawfully taking actions by executive fiat that only Congress can perform.
Obama's November 2014 executive order lifting the threat of deportation against more than 4 million illegal immigrants was directed at people with no criminal record whose children are U.S. citizens.
Those eligible would be able to work legally and receive some federal benefits. States were not required to provide any benefits. The order expanded on a 2012 program that provided similar relief for people who became illegal immigrants as children. That program went into effect, with the government saying that more than 600,000 people successfully applied.
The case raises several legal issues, including whether states have legal standing to sue the U.S. government over decisions on how to enforce federal laws.
The high court added a separate question on whether the president's guidance violates a provision of U.S. Constitution that requires the president to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed."
The case could have repercussions beyond immigration because it would set a precedent for the circumstances under which states can sue the federal government over a whole range of executive actions. Future presidents, Republican or Democratic, could face new constraints on their power if the states win.
The case is one of the most important the Supreme Court will decide this term, along with a challenge to a restrictive Texas abortion law.
If the court sides with the Obama administration, Obama would have until his term ends to implement the immigration plan. With the U.S. presidential election looming in November, it would be up to the next president to decide whether to keep it in place.
Obama's executive order on immigration came after a bipartisan immigration policy overhaul bill passed by the Senate died in the House of Representatives.
The immigration issue has driven a wedge between Hispanics, a voting bloc with rising clout, and Republicans, many of whom take a hard line against illegal immigrants. Most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants are Hispanics, coming from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Republican presidential candidates have talked tough against illegal immigrants. For example, businessman Donald Trump called illegal immigrants from Mexico rapists and criminals and has vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid welcomed the court's decision to hear the case and said Obama’s executive actions relied on well-established constitutional authority.
He said he recently met with the illegal immigrant parents of U.S citizens and lawful permanent residents, saying that "these law-abiding men and women continue to live in constant fear of being separated from their children. These families must be allowed to step out of the shadows and fully contribute to the country that they love and call home."